Previous Convictions

Previous Convictions at Sentencing: Exploring Empirical Trends in the Crown Court

Article (Criminal Law Review)

Most offenders appearing for sentencing have a criminal record. Despite the prevalence of previous convictions, little is known about their impact on sentence outcomes, and in particular the decision to imprison. How should previous convictions affect sentence outcomes? Competing theoretical models exist. Previous convictions may simply disentitle repeat offenders to first offender mitigation and then fail to aggravate (progressive loss of mitigation). Alternatively, prior convictions may be used to continuously increase the severity of sentence (cumulative sentencing). Until now, due to limitations of the sentencing statistics, it has been impossible to determine which model underpins sentencing practices. The Crown Court Sentencing Survey (CCSS) provides a more adequate source of data. Sentencers complete a return noting the factors taken into account at sentencing, including the number of prior convictions. This article reports new data from the CCCS which demonstrate that for most offences, courts continue to apply the principle of the progressive loss of mitigation. Once this mitigation is lost, there is little further increase in severity as measured by the custody rate, although some variation in the effect of previous convictions does emerge between offences.