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In an effort to spare victims the trauma of going through trial, the Sentencing Council in the UK is moving towards a policy whereby people charged with a crime can have their sentences reduced if they plead guilty at the earliest possible opportunity in court. The plan would cut their prison sentence by one-third. They would receive a one-fifth reduction if they plead before the day of trial, and one-tenth if they wait to the day of trial. The plan would apply regardless of the weight of evidence the prosecutor has against any particular defendant. The policy would not apply to someone pleading guilty to murder. In addition to sparing victims the grief of testifying at trial, the move would also free up resources to prosecute other major crimes, officials say.

Many states and the federal system in the United States already offer better plea deals when an offender pleads guilty early on, and accepts responsibility. Under the federal guidelines, it can mean the difference between receiving a mandatory minimum sentence, or a greatly reduced sentence. For example, if a defendant is charged with a federal offense carrying a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, he or she can take advantage of the “safety-valve” provisions of the sentencing guidelines by pleading guilty and accepting responsibility for her crime. The deal can get even better if that person agrees to testify against others.

The concern in the UK plan is that such a policy may entice prisoners to plead guilty when they are innocent to avoid a longer sentence. People charged with crimes are often vulnerable and frightened, and the fear is that they will opt for a lesser sentence when they should not. However, many judges closely question defendants about their trial rights, and specifically prevent them from pleading guilty just to get a reduced sentence. If these same safeguards are followed in the UK, the plan is a good one and should be enacted into law.

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