Why it pays to plead guilty: discount for serious crimes revealed

Criminals who plead guilty are doing so sooner in the judicial process.Criminals have more reason to plead guilty early as first-of-its-kind research reveals most offenders are getting reductions of 20 to 30 per cent off jail sentences in Victoria’s higher courts.
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The second-most common discount was even higher, of up to 40 per cent, and in a third of cases the type of sentence was changed entirely and the offender did not receive any jail time.

The data comes from a Sentencing Advisory Council report into the effect of regulations that since 2008 have required judges to disclose the discounts given to people who plead guilty to certain offences.

The study, which looked at more than 9600 cases in the Victorian county and supreme courts for the five years to June 2014, found those who pleaded guilty were doing so sooner in the judicial process.

“That saves everybody time and money,” council chair Arie Freiberg said, adding that it spared victims trauma associated with drawn out court proceedings.

Victims of Crime Commissioner Greg Davies said although it was important to encourage guilty pleas, discounts that were too generous were also damaging to victims.

“On average, it’s a massive discount and while this process allows many victims to avoid experiencing revictimisation through the trial process it then opens them up for revictimisation through what they may perceive to be an inadequate sentence,” he said.

The report also found most criminals in the higher courts (72 per cent in the Supreme Court and 84 per cent in the County Court) pleaded guilty, young people were the most likely to plead guilty and those sentenced for murder were least likely to plead guilty.

Most discounts were “quite standard, in fact, towards the moderate end of the range”, of what was happening in other states and overseas, Professor Freiberg said.

The report found widely criticised sentencing laws passed in 2014 to impose a baseline median for the most serious offences could deter offenders from pleading guilty and complicate plea negotiations, leading to agreements over lesser charges to avoid the baseline.

“It may be if you plead guilty to that then you may be facing that baseline so there is a motivation of an accused person to plead not guilty and take their chances at getting an acquittal,” Professor Freiberg said.

The report comes as the Victorian Law Reform Commission released a discussion paper into the role of victims of crime in the criminal trial process, calling for input on whether victims should be given more power.

Mr Davies’ submission to the commission will call for dedicated personnel at courts to support victims akin to those supplied for accused people, he said.

“At the moment a victim has no greater status at trial than as a witness and they’re the worst treated witness at that,” he said. “Someone needs to be there to give victims some support and understanding and to raise their status above that of a witness.”

Other reforms considered by the review include whether victims should be allowed to have a lawyer represent them at trial and the prospect of abolishing committal hearings.

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