The Sentencing Guidelines Council from time to time issue or indeed re-issue, as the name may suggest, guidance to courts in England and Wales with regard to various categories of offences. They have, in recent times, re-visited offences of assault and burglary, for which the guidance came into force without significant comment. What perhaps was the case for those offences may well not be for the new guidance with regard to drug offences which is due to come into force on the 27th February.
Because of their insidious impact and pernicious nature, drugs and those who involve themselves in drugs are frequent topics of debate, both in the press and in pubs and clubs in this country.
When there is a suggestion that sentences related to drug crimes may in fact be reduced for certain aspects of that criminality, you might expect a reaction. The new guideline offences do not in this respect disappoint.
It would perhaps be a more thorough review if each category could be looked at and indeed the proposed sentences assessed. However thorough and academic that may be, it is perhaps beyond the scope of this brief review. It may perhaps prove more fruitful to concentrate on those aspects of the guidelines that have been highlighted in the press. On listening to the radio on the journey to work this morning, the change that seemed to be attracting the most attention was the proposed reduction in sentence of drug ‘mules’. ‘Mules’ are people, quite often women, who, whether perceived or in reality, are tricked or forced into crime. Mules take the role of moving drugs either from place to place or indeed, as is often the case, across borders of countries; thus importing them into others. It is proposed in the new guidelines that in circumstances whereby it can be identified that they are playing a lesser role or are forced into the crime, drug mules now face a starting point of custody reduced from that previously proposed.
To many, that may seem to be a fair position to take. The people who operate higher up may seek out those more vulnerable and cajole, persuade or force them into doing what is the most dangerous aspect of the trade; dangerous not only in that they stand a greater chance of getting caught but, in many cases, dangerous to their own health as drugs are often moved inside the body and it should follow that when those people are caught their vulnerability should be reflected.
I have heard opinion, however, that an army can only operate if the generals have soldiers to do their bidding and that, whatever the motives of those who sign up to be the foot soldiers, be it economic necessity, conscription or press gang, they in fact facilitate the bidding of those above and ought therefore face the full sanctions attendant upon capture. To view it in such stark terms fails to take account of people’s personal circumstances and things that ought to properly be considered and factored into sentence.
One overriding thought, however, is that whatever movement, be it higher sentences for some or lower for others, are we not simply Canute-like in our view; simply shifting the throne along the beach instead of moving it to avoid the waves? The argument is that should we not re-address the whole question of our attitude to drugs, then very soon, whatever our position, the waves will have washed over us unabated by whatever we may have said sentences ought to be.