COVID-19 Prison Conditions Relevant to Sentencing – Court of Appeal Ruling

Safety measures imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to prisoners being confined to their cells almost all of the time and, in a unique ruling, the Court of Appeal has acknowledged that the impact of such tight restrictions on offenders should be taken into account when passing sentence.

The case concerned a middle-aged man who received a 12-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to a number of sexual offences, including four counts of sexual activity with a child. He was required to engage in rehabilitation and he was ordered to wear a tag and to observe a night-time curfew for nine months. Various other orders were made with a view to reducing the risk he posed. He swiftly satisfied further orders requiring him to pay £1,200 towards the costs of his prosecution and £7,500 in compensation to his victim.

The Solicitor General challenged the sentence on the basis that his offences were so serious that he should have been jailed immediately for a substantial period. The Court accepted that the sentence was unduly lenient and doubled it to 24 months. However, in ruling that the sentence should remain suspended, the Court noted his strong mitigation: he had been in steady work for many years, had no previous convictions and was motivated to address his offending behaviour.

Giving guidance for the future, the Court emphasised the established principle that, when deciding whether to suspend a sentence, judges must take into account the likely impact of a custodial term on an offender and, where appropriate, others as well. Due to the pandemic, prisoners were being confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and were unable to receive visits. Those restrictions, and the greater loss of liberty that they entailed, could properly be taken into account by sentencing judges.

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