Study Reveals, Why Plead Guilty?

Media Release

Embargoed until 1:00 a.m. (AEST), Tuesday 11 August 2015

A study released today reveals for the first time who pleads guilty in Victoria’s higher courts, at what stage in proceedings people plead, and what difference the guilty plea makes to their sentence.

Key Findings

In the period studied:

  • Most offenders sentenced in the Victorian higher courts pleaded guilty – 72% of proven charges in the Supreme Court and 85% in the County Court.
  • In imprisonment cases, the most common discount for pleading guilty was a 20–30% reduction in sentence length.
  • There was a significant increase in early guilty pleas (at the committal stage) in the County Court, when plea timing in the five-year period studied was compared with that in the previous five years.
  • Young people (18 to 21 year olds) were more likely to plead guilty than older people, and young people pleaded guilty earlier in proceedings.
  • Those sentenced for murder were the least likely to plead guilty (48% of proven murder charges). By comparison, 97% of those sentenced for attempted armed robbery pleaded guilty. This difference may be due to differences in the strength of evidence available for different offence types, the greater stigma of some offences compared with others, and differences in the severity of the likely sentence imposed upon conviction.
  • Whether and when offenders plead guilty may be influenced by their age, the offence they are charged with, and the type of sentence they are facing.
  • Offenders sentenced to imprisonment were the least likely to have pleaded guilty (81% of proven charges), whereas for almost all charges sentenced to a youth justice centre order (98%) or a community correction order (96%), the offender had pleaded guilty.

The Sentencing Advisory Council report, Guilty Pleas in the Higher Courts: Rates, Timing and Discounts, contains analysis of 9,618 cases involving 35,902 charges sentenced in the higher courts in the five-year period to 30 June 2014.

Sentence Discounts for Pleading Guilty

Since 2008, in particular circumstances sentencing judges have been required (under section 6AAA of the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic)) to state the sentence they would have imposed had the offender not pleaded guilty. Parliament intended this requirement to improve confidence in the justice system by making sentence discounts explicit and transparent, and to encourage defendants who intended to plead guilty to do so early.

The report shows Victorian higher courts had a very high rate of compliance with this obligation. For example, the sentence that would have been imposed if the offender had not pleaded guilty was stated in 99% of eligible imprisonment cases sentenced over the period studied.

The report also reveals details of the discounts given for guilty pleas over the period studied (for cases with a 6AAA statement). A third of offenders who pleaded guilty received a less serious type of sentence (e.g. a community correction order instead of imprisonment), and almost all of the remaining two-thirds received a shorter sentence because of their guilty plea.

In cases sentenced to imprisonment:

  • Pleading guilty early in proceedings (e.g. at a committal mention hearing) earned offenders a slightly greater sentencing discount than pleading guilty later in proceedings (e.g. during the trial).
  • Longer imprisonment sentences received smaller reductions for the guilty plea than shorter imprisonment sentences.
  • Two offenders sentenced for murder avoided a life sentence of imprisonment by pleading guilty. However, in one of these cases the offender was already serving a life sentence (imposed in a separate case).

In another two murder cases, the offender was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole despite pleading guilty.

Baseline Sentencing

The report cautions that the baseline sentencing scheme may increase the complexity of plea negotiations and hearings, and reduce the number of people pleading guilty to charges of the baseline offences (murder, trafficking in a large commercial quantity of a drug of dependence, sexual penetration with a child under 12, persistent sexual abuse of a child under 16, incest, and culpable driving).

Comment

Council Chair Emeritus Professor Arie Freiberg highlighted that 'This is the first analysis of its type in Victoria'.

'For the first time in Victoria, we are able to see the effect of pleading guilty on thousands of sentences. We can do this because of the very high compliance by sentencing judges with their obligation to disclose the effect of the guilty plea on the sentence.

'The reason that offenders receive a sentence reduction is to encourage them to plead guilty. There are significant benefits across the justice system when those who have committed offences take responsibility for what they have done and plead guilty, particularly when that plea is early in proceedings. The community is spared the time and expense of a trial. Justice can be delivered promptly, and victims and witnesses are spared the trauma of testifying in a trial.

'For offenders, victims, policy makers, and the community at large to have confidence in the system, the discount for pleading guilty must be transparent.'