Forcing criminals to attend their sentencing: just creating more problems?

Last month, the government announced that the Ministry of Justice have granted judges greater powers to force criminals to attend their sentencing hearings.  

The decision follows a series of high-profile murder cases in which the convicted, including Lucy Letby and Thomas Cashman (the killer of Olivia Pratt-Korbel) have refused to attend their sentencing hearings. The result has been the inciting of outrage; and the relentless campaigns from families who say they were denied the chance to see the killers face justice. All this has ignited call for change. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak summarised this sentiment, saying these offenders were “able to take the coward’s way out and not appear in court for their sentencing and to hear the impact that their crimes have had on the victim’s families.” 

The results have been the inciting of outrage and the relentless campaigns from families and friends

In response, it will be made “clear in law” that reasonable force can be used to ensure offenders appear in the dock. Refusal to attend their sentencing may result in an extra two years added to a criminal’s sentence. 

While the decision aims to deliver a greater sense of justice to victims’ loved ones, it simultaneously encourages debate over its ethics, and practicality, raising concerns about putting extra pressure on an already strained prison system.

Critics have suggested that the two-year penalty for non-attendance has its limitations. In Lucy Letby’s example, where ‘whole life orders’ are in effect for the most serious crimes,  the prospect of an extra two years behind bars seems unlikely to serve as a compelling incentive to attend their sentencings. Nonetheless, whole-life terms are rare, with only 65 whole-life prisoners as of 30th June 2023. More commonly criminals with life sentences are given a minimum term to serve. In these instances of refusal, this two-year penalty would prolong their time behind bars, potentially making it an effective deterrent for many serious offenders. More significant however is the potential to give a degree of closure to victims and grieving families. 

However, some argue that forcing criminals to attend sentencing would not necessarily serve genuine justice and may be impractical. In a letter to The Guardian, Jeremy Dein KC argues that: “[…] justice is served by the sentence, not the display” and that “our prison system is struggling to cope with a bursting population”, so “to focus on cramming our institutions even more by adding to already long sentences for failure to stand in the dock is illogical”.

Indeed, it is unfair to reduce sentencing to a ‘display’. And yet it is reasonable for the victims to want perpetrators to hear the impact of their crimes and provide a sense of justice and closure—and criminals ducking this could be said to be them holding victims and grieving loved ones in contempt.

However, given the already swelling incarceration rate, it is irresponsible to further overpopulate the swelling prisons by lengthening sentences for what can be seen as a minor reason, i.e, refusing to attend sentencing. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, there is already an excess of 8,500 prisoners in England and Wales—based on the Ministry of Justice’s own definition of safety and decency. The penalty may prove to be more dangerous than just as it may perpetuate overcrowding, harming rehabilitation. 

Another impracticality is the increased pressure on prison officers as a result of the enforced attendance to the courtroom. Mark Fairhurst, national chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, said to Sky News: “We’ll have to increase staffing levels because it takes three members of staff to restrain one prisoner”. “What happens if they become abusive? […] What’s 

the impact on the victim’s family going to be then? […] People are going to get injured if they become violent. It’s extra pressure on our members”.

It is unfair to reduce sentencing to a ‘display’

This extra pressure on prison officers seems unreasonable for an already strained criminal justice system. Furthermore, forcing an aggressive defendant into the dock does not seem worth the potential negative effect on victims’ families for the sake of justice. Therefore, I feel that criminals should not be dragged into court kicking and screaming.

Moreover the definition of ‘reasonable force’ is vague; such a term has the potential to be misinterpreted or abused by judges and custody officers. Potential for violence and other unethical action towards defendants therefore needs to be mitigated by creating a clear framework for what reasonable force entails.

All things considered, I do feel the decision may act as an incentive for some criminals to come to court to avoid a longer sentence, which may achieve a sense of justice for some victims and their families. But ultimately it may create more problems than it solves for a prison system already under so much pressure.

Image credit: Focal Foto via Flickr

One thought on “Forcing criminals to attend their sentencing: just creating more problems?

  • Is the practice of forcing criminals to attend their sentencing hearings potentially counterproductive, leading to more issues within the justice system?
    Telkom University


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