Parliament is considering a bill which lifts the threshold for jury trials from offences with a maximum three months jail, to offences with a maximum three years jail.
I’m of mixed mind on this change. Overall I think there is a good case to increase the limit, as the massive delays we have for jury trials need to be reduced. It is unfair on victims and defendents to have these delays.
However the thought of people spending up to three years in prison without a jury trial, doesn’t sit too well with me.
But just because a maximum offence penalty is three years jail, doesn’t mean that is a common sentence. I wondered what the actual penalty range was for each offence. The data wasn’t online, so I asked the Ministry of Justice.
The Ministry kindly collated and gave me the information which you can see in the document above.
The first table shows what percentage of convictions for an offence that would no longer be covered by a jury trial (ie maximum sentence of six months to three years) actually result in going to prison at all.
I’ve had to cross-match the data in the letter to the frequency of each offence class. Overall the position seems to be that only about 20% of those found guilty of an offence with a maximum penalty of six months to three years get a prison sentence at all.
The second table shows what the maximum sentence ever given out for that category of offence is. Most years around half the offence categories have someone given the maximum three years. So it is possible some defendants could end up being sentenced to three years jail on the basis of a judge only trial.
What we don’t know ifs whether those who were given the maximum sentence were also charged with other more serious crimes, and hence would be having a jury trial anyway.
The third table shows the median sentence for those who did get a prison sentence – which was around 20% of those convicted.
On a weighted average the median sentence looks to be 120 days or four months. Now sentences of under a year are always halved for parole (off memory), so actual time served would be 60 day or two months.
So my conclusion is that if trials go judge-only for offences with a maximum penalty of three years or less, then 80% of those will serve no prison time at all, a further 10% will serve up to 60 days (taking parole) into account and a further 10% could serve between 60 days and up to two years (when parole is near automatic for a three year sentence).
So as I said at the beginning, I’m reasonably comfortablw with moving the limit up from three months – the vast majority of those facing judge alone trials will not go to prison. However the 10% who might end up spending more than 60 days in prison on the basis on a judge alone trial are a concern. A limit of two years might be fairer.
What do readers think the right place to draw the line is – 3 months, 3 years, in between? less than 3 months, more than 3 years?