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July 28, 2008

Great Britain Embarks On U.S.-Styled Reforms

Looks like some interesting developments in sentencing law are underway across the pond.  Rumor has it that Harriet Harman, the Commons Leader in Great Britain, will propose striating the country's homicide laws to enable prosecutors to charge defendants with varying degrees of either murder or manslaughter.  Here is an outline of the proposed reforms:

Instead of only being able to charge defendants with either murder or manslaughter, prosecuting authorities may be able to choose from a wider range of options.

These would include first-degree murder, where the offender intends to kill; second-degree murder, where the offender intends to cause serious harm but causes death; and manslaughter, for cases involving negligence or the intention to cause some but not serious harm, which result in death.

Scores of killers who are now charged with manslaughter would no longer be able to escape a murder charge.  The new plans also signal the end of the mandatory life sentence for all murderers, a regime that dates back to the abolition of the death penalty more than 40 years ago.

Under the changes, while first-degree murder would carry a mandatory life sentence, judges in cases of second-degree murder would have the discretion to impose a fixed-term sentence.

"The aim is to be tougher but also give prosecutors more flexibility over charging and courts more flexibility over sentencing," a government source said.

The new category of second-degree murder would, for example, be likely to catch terrorists who planted a bomb or poisoned supermarket food but gave a warning in which they said they did not intend to kill.  Currently they could only be convicted of manslaughter.

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Comments

On the face of it, a sensible reform (in the UK) to bring greater flexibility and accountability to a sentencing issue that is attracting some public attention following a spate of highly publicized deaths involving young people. What is interesting however is that although being proposed by the politician responsible, Harriet Harman, this is clearly not a knee-jerk reaction to these deaths (though the timing of the announcement may be related), but follows detailed recommendations from the Law Commission's report of 2006. It seems that the issue of punishment is secondary to the requirement to better define the offense, and to provide all parties with greater flexibility to decide an appropriate custodial response. How refreshing and civilized to be discussing such issues without reference to the death penalty and LWOP, death row, and the rest.

Posted by: peter | Jul 28, 2008 5:35:36 PM

In some respects, however, like a move to dilute double jeopardy protections and the right to a jury trial in less serious cases, they are moving away from U.S. practice.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 29, 2008 2:25:23 PM

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