‘Offence seriousness should be the primary determinant of sentence. But that does not mean that an offender’s criminal record is irrelevant to sentencing.’ In what ways, if at all, do you think previous convictions should inform sentencing decisions?


The first part of the question was noted from the judgment of Queen1 that ‘the proper way to look at the matter is to decide a sentence which is appropriate for the offence…before the court’. Thus, the seriousness of the current offence should be the primary determinant factor in sentencing. Lord Taylor CJ in Bexley2 has further emphasized, the court must regard primarily to the seriousness of the current offence. In determining the seriousness of the offence, the sentencer would always take into account any aggravating or mitigating factors which impinge upon the question of offence seriousness3. Some of the factors apply across a range of offences. They may further treat previous convictions, there is considerable evidence, as a form of aggravation, without much reference to the concept of a ‘ceiling’ set by the current offence.

I would examine this essay in two parts, firstly, whether the seriousness of the offence should be the primary determinant of sentence; secondly, what information about a defendant’s prior record is relevant to sentence selection, and in what ways that should inform sentencing decisions.


a. Define ‘Seriousness’:

It is very difficult to define ‘seriousness’ in the abstract and no attempt is made to do so in existing sentencing law. It is of great importance, however, for the sentencer to gauge the seriousness of one offence in relation to another, and to distinguish within each offence, for example one case of burglary from another case of burglary. The sentencer, in assessing seriousness, would regard to the immediate circumstances of the offence, and the degree of the offender’s culpability in relation to that offence.

b. The effect of  the Criminal Justice Act 2003:

The court would, by s143 (1),in considering the seriousness of any offence, assess the offender’s culpability in committing the offence and the harm, or risk of harm, which the offence caused or was intended to cause. This amounts to a restatement, in more specific terms, of the ‘just deserts’ principle, of the fact that the punishment should be commensurate with the offence, and release the punishment to what the offender has actually done. It spells out that culpability, the level of blameworthiness, is a matter to which regard should be had. The provisions of s 143, despite long semantic debates during the passage of the new Act, do not limit the matters which the court may take into account as aggravating or mitigating factors.

The circumstances of the offence, in this context, are important, although this should not be misunderstood. Section 143 requires the court to look at issues of individual culpability. This will include the harm caused, or the risk of harm, because the fact that the risk does not translate into actual harm is not within the control of the offender and does not render the culpability of the offender any less great. The circumstances of the offence itself-culpability, harm, risk of harm-are relevant to that. But matters relating to the surrounding circumstances do not relate to offence seriousness; rather, these are aggravating or mitigating factors4.

c. Factors which aggravate offence seriousness:

Offence seriousness can be notified through the aggravating factors which are well established in English sentencing practice: offences by groups or gangs; offences against young, elderly or otherwise vulnerable victims; offences involving the abuse of trust or authority; racially motivated offences; and offences involving planning or organization. By weighing up such factors as these, the sentencer will be able to reach a view on offence seriousness, and hence a provisional view on the appropriate sentence. However, sections 148 to 153 of the CJA 20035 set out the thresholds for community sentences and custodial sentences6.

d. Guidelines to assess seriousness:

Sentencers are not entirely on their own in assessing seriousness. They do not need to start from a blank sheet in every case. They will derive guidance on the assessment of offence seriousness, particularly where sentence is being imposed in the Crown Court, from the guideline judgments of the Court of Appeal and, where sentence is being imposed by magistrates, from the Magistrates’ Association Guidelines (2000) and, perhaps, guidelines and norms produced by the particular bench. This guidance relates to sentencing for particular offences, which deals with sentencing for a range of individual crimes.


a. Relevance of previous convictions:

The significance of the offender’s previous convictions to the current sentence is virtually unanimous. It becomes obvious and clear that full details of the defendant’s criminal record should always be made available to the sentencing court and seems that sentencers themselves regard the receipt of this information as being of very great significance.  The existing s.151 (1), 2000 Act7 allowed sentencers complete flexibility to take account of previous convictions when sentencing, so that offenders can now be sentenced ‘on their record’. In Spencer and Carby7, where two pickpockets had been sentenced for attempted theft and for theft, McCowan LJ remarked that ‘without doubt the offences for which they were being dealt with could properly be viewed as more serious by reason of the appallingly long records of each of these men for pick pocketing offences’8.

b. The changes made by the 2003 Act:

The 2003 Act develops further that section 143 requires a court not only to take account of previous convictions , but, equally importantly, also to treat each previous conviction as an aggravating factor to offence seriousness if it can reasonably be so treated. Some might consider that previous convictions should not, normally, be regarded as relevant to offence seriousness, but rather to the question of aggravating or mitigating factors that determine the nature and length of the sentence. Previous convictions, but not cautions, are intended to aggravate offence seriousness, which is heightened by previous offending. The expectation is that persistent offenders should be treated progressively more severely. Those convictions, however, should be relevant and recent, and s143 operates within the principle of sentence proportionality.

 c. Arguments against the relevancy of previous convictions:

The proper way to look at the matter is to decide a sentence which is appropriate for the offence for which the prisoner is before the court. Another way of saying that no prisoner should be sentenced for the offences which he has committed in the past and for which he has already been punished9 . Some Court of Appeal decisions, such as Galloway10, Bailey11  and Bexley12, displayed a general acceptance of the view that it is wrong to impose a sentence which is longer than would be indicated by the seriousness of the offence purely on the basis of previous record. A poor record should not, on that view, be regarded as an aggravating factor relevant to offence seriousness13.


A sense of proportion is obvious for the sentencer to keep in mind when deciding on the total sentence. It is sometimes said that the totality of the offences or of the criminality must be borne in mind, more often that the totality of the orders of the court must be appropriate14. Therefore, the sentencer can not justify the inference, from the commission of a single offence, that the offender is ‘the sort of person who does that sort of thing’. One could further argue that it takes only one previous similar conviction to rebut any presumption that the offender is not ‘that sort of person’, and that something more plausible is needed to explain the feeling that each successive conviction justifies greater severity. It seems less artificial to say simply that the number of previous convictions is a measure of the offender’s lack of respect for the law.

Until 2003, the prevailing English sentencing doctrine concerning previous convictions was that of “progressive loss of mitigation”, first adopted by the Court of Appeal in Queen. This doctrine holds that a degree of mitigation should be extended to first offenders; the discount, however, should diminish with subsequent offending so that when the defendant has been before the courts on several occasions, he should receive the full measure of punishment proportionate to the seriousness of his offence.

 The sentencer should not, however, continue to increase the severity of sentence indefinitely after each additional conviction. Furthermore, proportionate sentencing, it was argued, calls for primary emphasis to be given to the gravity of the current offence–and not to previous convictions for which the offender has already been punished. At the end, it must be noted that an offender’s sentence should never be increased to a level disproportionate with the seriousness of the current offence simply because of his poor record15.


It can be inferred that most of the references to Criminal record so far have been general. But criminal records differ in several ways; therefore the court must weigh and interpret the criminal record of the particular offender it is dealing with. The court would likely to take into consideration of the factors of prior record, which are emerged relevant, as is follows:

a. The comparative seriousness of previous offences:

In practice, court is likely to attribute greater significance to previous burglaries than to small thefts, although it is unlikely that a court passing sentence for shoplifting would consider a previous conviction for a serious offence of sex, violence or fraud to be relevant16. Clearly, all indictable offences committed by the defendant should necessarily appear in his criminal record, but summary convictions contained in local police records may not appear :Walker17.

Seriousness of past offences is a criterion for the operation of the extended sentence. In Dodsworth18 where the defendant was convicted of the rape of a girl aged twelve. The defendant had been convicted of attempted rape in similar circumstances in 1979, which was regarded as highly significant, ‘…so plainly this is a man who has to be punished and punished severely and from whom the public is entitled to expect protection for a considerable length of time’

b. Similarity of previous offences to the current offence:

The English practice is heavily weighing the previous similar offences against an offender than the dissimilar offences. It is unusual even to cite previous road traffic offences after a non-traffic conviction, or to cite non-traffic offences after a traffic conviction19. The Magistrates’ Association’s Sentencing Guidelines (2000) seem to follow this trend. Magistrates are advised: ‘Consider previous convictions, or any failure to respond to previous sentences, in assessing seriousness. Courts should identify any convictions relevant for this purpose and then consider to what extent they affect the seriousness of the present offence’20.

 Some of the appellant cases where the very different nature of the earlier offending has been held to render the record wholly or in part irrelevant are Silver21: conviction for manslaughter, earlier record of traffic offending irrelevant, Williams22: defendant convicted of offence of dishonesty; the court took note of a ‘record of dishonesty’ but regarded an earlier conviction for rape as ‘not material’, Cawser23: convicted of rape; ‘ a man with a bad record; it is, perhaps, fair to say, that there is only one incident in his record of a sexual nature’.

c. Number of previous convictions:

The number of previous convictions is regarded as important in itself is supported by several observations of the way in which prior record information is provided for and handled by sentencers24. It is suggested that findings of guilt when the defendant was a juvenile and convictions followed by nominal sentences are included. Spent convictions are included, although they should be specially marked. However, it is clear that number alone is not the governing factor.

Research was carried out by Shapland indicates that sentencers generally do not require that a defendant’s full criminal record be read out in court, requesting ‘last three or four only’ as reflecting previous convictions generally regarded as relevant25. Official guidance26 suggests that previous convictions should not be read out if they ‘are either so stale or so different from the current offence as to make them of little relevance’27.

d. Staleness of previous convictions:

It is a general principle of English law that previous convictions become ‘spent’ after the lapse of time. The provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 establish ‘rehabilitation periods’, with the effect that for most purposes a conviction should not be mentioned outside that period. The periods vary according to the sentence imposed-for example, the period is five years where the sentence  was a community service order, but the period is unlimited if the sentence was custody for longer than 30 months28. Therefore, the implications for stale offences are of less significance in the criminal record than recent offences that minor offences become stale more quickly than serious offences and that offences visited with severe penalties never become stale.

Where an offender has a conviction-free gap in his record, prior to the current offence, it is well established that this should reduce the effect which the previous convictions have on sentence29. In Fox30, the Court of Appeal reduced the sentence on a man aged 35 convicted of grievous bodily harm who had two previous convictions many years earlier. The judgment revealed that his previous record of violence when he was in his late teens and mid-twenties should have been left out of account in deciding what action to take31.

e. The full details of previous sentences:

In the criminal record, the full details of previous sentences received should be included, such as the amount of any fine, the duration of any custodial or non-custodial sentence, or number of hour’s community service and any alteration as the result of an appeal32. There are a number of other situations in which previous sentences received by the defendant must be regarded as relevant; for example, the previous offences and sentences which bear on statutory sentencing requirements may need to be cited if the court contemplates a sentence to which one of the requirements is relevant33.

f. Time gap of reoffending:

It is suggested that the frequency of past offending is relevant in sentence selection. Under the 1974 Act, convictions become spent after the relevant ‘rehabilitation period’ has expired. If an offence is committed during the rehabilitation period, the first offence is not lived down until the rehabilitation period for the second offence has ended. However, frequency is a criterion for the imposition of an extended sentence. The existence of a conviction-free-gap prior to the current offence is regarded as a significant mitigating factor34. An example is Bleasdale35 where Hobhouse J. commented: ‘what has to be said in favour of this appellant is that since serving that sentence (in 1978) he has kept out of trouble. This is an important feature in his favour. This appellant did make an effort, clearly, and between 1978 and 1982 he succeeded36.’

g. Age of the defendant:

The age of a defendant can operate as a significant mitigating factor in sentencing in England, particularly where it is associated with other factors. It is suggested that youth continues to have some value as a mitigating factor throughout the early twenties and sometimes as late as thirty37. An aspect of this is that if previous convictions were recorded against a defendant at a young age, they may be regarded as less relevant later38.

h. Previous record in relation to character inference:

Certain offences are regarded as ‘obviously revealing’ in some way about the defendant from his criminal record. In considering that there must be ‘something wrong’ and suggesting a particular line of enquiry for the court, or a particular mode of disposal. Examples would be a previous history of offences of arson or sexual offences.

On the other hand, the Court of Appeal in Loosemore40, made the general observation that a sentencer should deal with the defendant on the basis of his offence and not on the basis of his ‘feckless character and general behaviour’. However, there are numerous examples, where the Court may be seen to draw an inference as to character from the list of previous convictions. In Smith41, where it was said to be ‘clear from Smith’s record that he is a man who sees no reason at all why he should not poach if he has the time and the opportunity’42.


The above identified factors to some extent, are capable of being refined and encapsulated in sentencing decisions. The Court of Appeal traditionally has been reluctant, when hearing appeals against sentence, to travel much beyond the instant facts of the case to provide general guidance for sentencers. However, this has begun to change, with an important series of ‘guideline’ judgments providing more generalized assistance for sentencers on important questions of sentencing policy43.

It is suggested that prior record should inform the sentencing decisions in two different ways. One way may be looked at in order to provide a basis for some kind of predictive assessment of the defendant’s likely future behaviour or response to sentence, or the other may be considered as a dimension of the defendant’s culpability against which his punishment is to be measured. Some of the eight factors identified (above) primarily reflect the predictive approach, some primarily reflect the culpability approach (Just deserts), but nearly all are capable of reflecting both.

a. Predictive approach:

The academics so far have argued that a predictive rationale of sentencing must be operating, whenever previous convictions are taken into account by the sentencer. For example, Fletcher44: The contemporary pressure to consider prior convictions in setting the level of the offence and of punishment reflects a theory of social protection rather than a doctrine of deserved punishment . Furthermore, the rule of thumb is that recidivists are more dangerous and that society will be better served if the recidivists are isolated for longer terms45.

Let us consider the implications of prior record by using the information of the above eight factors for the predictive approach. For example, the number of previous convictions recorded against a defendant is generally regarded as being the best available predictor of future offending. The research evidence is that the more convictions recorded against a defendant, the greater the likelihood that he will be reconvicted46. Nevertheless, systematic guidance could in theory be drawn up for sentencers along the lines of statistical prediction of likely re-offending on the basis of past record, in reliance on research. Although there are uncertainties and contradictions in the work which has been done so far, it could in principle be achieved47.

There are, however, numerous problems with the predictive approach. Firstly48, a high rate of error in prediction almost always occurs, both in failing to identify those who did return to crime and in mistakenly identifying those who did not. Secondly, efforts to improve predictive accuracy involve the collection of information about the offender going far beyond his actual criminal record49. Collection of such data may well be objected to on grounds of its likely inaccuracy and its invasion of privacy.

b. The culpability approach (Just deserts):

There are two main persuasive reasons were advanced for taking account of prior record in computing culpability. The first was that ‘A repetition of the offence following …conviction may be regarded as more culpable since persisted in the behaviour after having been forcefully censured for it through his prior punishment’50. The second was an ‘evidentiary’ one that the more often the defendant is convicted and punished, the more sure we can be that he is actually guilty51.

Von Hirsch has further argued that when a person commits some misdeed in everyday life, he may plead that his misconduct was uncharacteristic of his previous behaviour. This plea relates to an inference which is normally drawn from (a) a judgment about the wrongfulness of an act to (b) the disapproval directed at a person. The actor is claiming in mitigation that though this act was wrong he should not suffer full obloquy for it because the act is out of keeping with his customary standards of behaviour. Logically, this plea carries greatest weight when the actor has not committed the misdeed before and it becomes progressively less persuasive with repetition of the wrongdoing. This analysis is then transferred to sentencing.  Therefore, it can be said that the resultant model is very similar, though drawn in more detail, to the ‘progressive loss of mitigation’ theory. It entails that the defendant’s criminal record is not appropriate to justify endless successive increases in penalty, but is primarily a means of achieving sentence reduction for those with clean or nearly clean records.

At this point, I would like to take an opportunity to examine the factors which were identified above as potentially relevant to prior record in the English sentencing context, seeing to what extent they might be compatible with a just deserts sentencing framework. For example, the number of previous convictions, on the basis of predictive sentencing, number provided the best available indicator of future offending. The greater the number of previous convictions, the greater the risk of re-offending and the more pressing the need for appropriate preventive sentencing.

 In ‘Just deserts’ sentencing, however, the number is relevant only in a strictly limited way. The defendant is entitled to mitigation for the first few offences, and then the mitigation is exhausted so that the defendant is visited with the full penalty of the law. The obvious question is how many repetitions can occur before the force of the mitigation is lost? Von Hirsch concedes that he has ‘no ready answer’ to this question, being content to suggest ‘a certain limited number of repetitions’. I may, for the purposes of argument, select five. The crucial point is that after those five convictions, reconviction would not attract greater severity. Von Hirsch calls this a ‘closed criminal history score’.

 One of the most difficult matters for the just deserts theorists to resolve has been the relevance of the defendant’s previous convictions to the current sentence. Some writers have argued that such a theory cannot support more severe sentences for persistent offenders and that the reasoning employed in taking account of them must be covertly preventive. It has further claimed that it is ‘because we know that prior convictions are prognostic of future criminality that the strict retributive model is, to most persons, unacceptable’52.

Von Hirsch’s analysis of the relevance of prior convictions has been criticized by Nigel walker by questioning the implications of the ‘out of character’ plea. He argued that the principal defect of his justification is its failure to distinguish clearly between punishings because punishment is deserved and punishing because punishment expresses disapproval. If his argument is to hold water it must be carried to the length of saying that recidivists should be punished not merely to express disapproval of their character but because the sentencer is entitled to punish them for that character53.

c.  The directions by the CJA 2003:

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 contains language that appears to reject the doctrine of progressive loss of mitigation, and to substitute a cumulative model for dealing with previous convictions. Subsection 143(2) provides that if the offender has recent, related, prior convictions, a court must consider each prior conviction as justifying an increment in sentence severity, based on an incremental enhancement in crime seriousness. This provision would seem to generate a step function, with severity increments accruing with every previous conviction (if considered by the court to be related and recent)54. Such an approach is reminiscent of some sentencing guideline schemes in the United States, in which defendants accumulate criminal history points for each previous conviction55 or, in the case of the federal sentencing guidelines56, each previous sentence57.

A sentencing scheme that resorts to cumulative sentence increases for repeat offenders will make the criminal law’s public valuation of criminal conduct much more diffuse. The focus would no longer be on the degree of harmfulness of the offence and the offender’s culpability, but rather on the extent of the offender’s previous convictions. An offender who commits a lesser offence, having repeatedly been convicted of such conduct before, could receive nearly as much condemnation  through his increased sentence as someone who has committed a much more harmful and reprehensible act. As a result, the severity of the criminal sanction will no longer reflect recognition of the degree of wrongfulness of criminal acts.

The Home Office, on the other hand, has tried to justify a cumulative model for previous convictions in terms of crime prevention. Such claims are without empirical support, however. One such claim is that a greater emphasis on the offender’s criminal record would have significant incapacitative benefits. Reference is made to a group of about 100,000 persistent recidivists, whose criminal activities supposedly would be impeded by lengthier prison sentences58. The plausibility of this claim is marred, however, by the same Home Office document’s admission that the composition of this group is continually changing, with new entrants into the cohort of active offenders and offenders leaving the cohort as their criminal careers slow down59. Those given the enhanced sentences thus may no longer be the most active offenders. The Halliday Report rejected such claims, and did not base its proposals on any putative incapacitative effects60.


 English sentencing practice has universally recognised the importance of taking account both of the seriousness of the offence and the defendant’s previous convictions. The sentencer, in determining the seriousness of the offence, would always take into account (of) the aggravating factors which impinge upon the question of offence seriousness61.

 The changes made by the 2003 Act that sentence severity should be commensurate with the seriousness of the criminal conduct, in respect of the seriousness of the offence and the offender’s criminal history. The seriousness of the offence should also reflect its degree of harm, or risk of harm, and the offender’s culpability in committing the offence. The severity of the sentence should also increase to reflect previous convictions, taking into account how recent and relevant they were.

 The significance of the offender’s previous record to the current sentence is virtually unanimous. There is great confusion over the precise relevance of items of information contained in such records. The theory of just deserts, which is akin to progressive loss of mitigation, appears to be gaining prominence in English writings, reflecting the majority of observations of the Court of Appeal. On this view, as we have seen, good record is a matter capable of constituting mitigation but poor record is not an aggravating factor. Yet one of the leading writers on English sentencing, Nigel walker, while accepting this position in theory, says that ‘it would be more realistic to acknowledge that in practice a record with previous relevant convictions is an aggravating consideration’.

 Further attempt has been made in this essay to show how the previous convictions inform sentencing decisions. Two separate strands such as ‘predictive’ sentencing and ‘just deserts’. It has been argued that these approaches are in tension with each other, often entailing contrary inferences from facts about a defendant’s previous record. So long as English sentencing retains both approaches in this context, its attitude to the relevance of prior convictions is bound to be incoherent.


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1 (1981) 3 Cr.App.R. (S.) 245

2 (1993) 2 All E R 38

3 An example of a factor which tends to make an offence more serious is where the offender has committed the offence in breach of trust.

4The Scottish Minister of State observed: ‘(Section 143) concerns how the court should determine the seriousness of the offence. The circumstances of the offence are an important factor when considering, for example, whether there are any aggravating or mitigating factors. However, here it is the seriousness of the offence that the court is being required to consider in order to determine what sentence to impose. The sentencing principles set out…are to guide the sentencer in reaching a decision on the seriousness of the offence. … the surrounding circumstances are not relevant to that ..’

5 Section 79 of the PCC (S) A 2000 repealed by s 332 and Sch 37, which requires that a custodial sentence can be imposed only where the offence committed by the offender is ‘so serious that only such a sentence can be justified’ (s. 79 (2) (a). The exception referred to above, that a sentencer may impose custody where the offender has committed a sexual offence or a violent offence, requires that ‘only such a sentence would be adequate to protect public from serious harm from him’ (s. 79 (2) (b).

7 (1995) 2 KB 431

8 Lord Bingham CJ in Brewster (1998) stated that ‘the record of the offender is of more significance in the case of domestic burglary than in the case of some other crimes’, holding that courts should distinguish between professional burglars and others who show less persistence and deliberation.

9 See, Croall and Tyrer, Criminal Justice, p-87.

10 (1979) Crim  LR 193

11 (1988) 2 KB 431

12 (1993) 2 All ER 760

13 The Court of Appeal confirmed in Bexley (1993), that an offender who has been punished for offences committed in the past should not in effect be punished for them again when being sentenced for a fresh offence.

14 See, Radzinowicz, Sir L, and Hood, R (1981), ‘Dangerousness and Criminal Justice: a few reflections’, Crim LR 756.

15 Despite the Court of Appeal authority listed above, this principle has never been fully accepted by sentencers who undoubtedly do still tend in practice to regard a list of previous convictions, although is confirmed by 2003 Act, as an aggravating factor and, at least to some extent, to sentence offender ‘on their records’.

16 Previous offences which were visited with severe sanctions (custodial sentences of thirty months or more) are never spent under the 1974 Act.

17 1985) 3 Cr.App.R. (S.) 245

18 (1984) 1CR APP R 199

19 More generally, previous offences of a class different from the current offence may be able to be ignored (e.g. in the case of theft, no reference may be necessary to a previous conviction of a sexual offence)’

20 A Practice Direction requires the police to provide courts with details of ‘the circumstances of the last three similar convictions, and/or of convictions likely to be of interest to the court, the latter being judged on a case by case basis’. The drift of this Practice Direction and of the Magistrates’ Association guidelines is therefore towards convictions relevant to this offence.

21 (1982) 3 All ER 659

22 (1983) AC 705

23 (1980) 2 All ER 1033

24 Even formal police cautions should be presented to the court at the same time as previous convictions, but ‘care must be taken to present cautions separately so that the distinction between cautions and convictions is clear’ (Home Office, 1985).

25 Shapland, 1981 Cr.App.R. (S.) 245

26 Home Office, 1973

27 There seems to be a clear working assumption on the part of police and court personnel that some previous convictions are more relevant than others. The common practices of prosecuting sample counts and taking offences into consideration tend to distort the number of previous convictions appearing on a record.

28 Where an offender’s criminal  record is produced in criminal proceedings, convictions which are spent should be marked as such, and courts should only take them into account in sentencing or mention them in open  court where ‘the  interests of justice so require’. These provisions may be seen as an attempt to control the stigma arising from criminal convictions.

29 Broadly in the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, section 16(2) , which provides that in proceedings against a person who has attained the age of twenty one, findings of guilt made against him when he was under the age of fourteen shall be disregarded ‘for the purpose of any evidence of previous convictions’.

30 (1980) 2 All ER 1033

31 See, Hutton, ‘Sentencing, Inequality and Justice’, 8 Social and Legal Studies 233.

32 The date of release from the last custodial sentence is also given. It is further noted that if the defendant has not previously served a custodial sentence, the sentencer is obliged by statute to satisfy himself that custody is now essential.

33 See, Harding and Koffman, Sentencing and the Penal System, p-145.

34 See, Thomas 1979, pp. 200-202.

35 (1984), 2 All ER 1033

36 A case combining this factor with the previous one is West (1983), where the defendant was convicted on two counts of assault. The court, while noting West’s ‘indifferent record’, changed a custodial sentence to one of community service on the basis that the last conviction for violence ‘was some nine years ago, when he was in his twenties’.

37 See, Thomas,1979, p.195.

38 Antecedents generally contain the age of the defendant, and his age at the time of the commission of each earlier offence is evident from the list of previous convictions. Findings of guilt are included but convictions under the age of fourteen are generally so marked. If the defendant was under seventeen when convicted, certain of the rehabilitation periods under the 1974 Act are halved.

40 (1980), All E R, 1. 156

41 (1982), AC 705

42 And Bowater and Davies (1980) where the Court inferred from the record that the defendant was a man well acquainted with dishonest methods of dealing in scrap metal.

43 such as prison overcrowding, or dealing with particular types of case, such as sentencing in serious drug offences .

44 See, Fletcher, 1978, p 466.

45 The correctness of this view will be challenged in a moment. In truth, it can be claimed that previous convictions are more obviously relevant to the sentencer working on a predictive rather than a just deserts basis.

46 An English research carried out by Philpotts and Lancucki, in January 1979.

47 Such an exercise would be not dissimilar to the work which has been done in this country and the United States on ‘parole prediction scores’.

48 In the vast majority of predictive studies carried out, whilst criminal record taken together with other predictive factors has been strongly associated with subsequent recidivism, the association between each of the variables and future offending has been found to be weak.

49 In important recent work on predictive sentencing by Greenwood (1982) matters identified as predictors include the defendant’s history of drug use and his employment status, as well as the number of his previous convictions and his age when first convicted.

50  See, Von Hirsch, Doing Justice, 1976, p-87

51 See, Von Hirsch, 1981, p-123


52  See, Wilkins 1985, p-145.

53 The Court of Appeal sometimes allows evidence of good moral character –such as bravery – to mitigate sentence, but to generalize from this to a policy of sentencing people for their moral character would be a leap into a bog without boundaries.

54  See, Von Hirsch and Roberts, ‘The Provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 Relating to Sentencing Purposes and the Role of Previous Convictions’ in Criminal Law Review August 639-652.

55 See Roberts, “Paying for the Past: the Role of Criminal Record in the Sentencing Process” in M. Tonry (ed.), (1997) 22 Crime and Justice. A Review of Research.

56 . See US Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual (2002).

57 See, Hudson, B,( 2003) Understanding Justice, p-265.

58Home Office, Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead (2002), para.1.28.

59 For example, over half the male offenders and fully 80 per cent of female offenders born between 1953 and 1978 had criminal “careers” that were over in less than a year–not so much a career as a brief apprenticeship; see J. Prime, S. White, S. Liriano and K. Patel, Criminal Careers of those Born between 1953 and 1978 (2001).

60The report notes the shifting composition of the group of active criminal offenders, and points out that “even very modest increases in incapacitative impact would call for very large increases in prison populations. The prison population would need to increase by around 15%, for a reduction in crime of 1%”.

61 Sentencers are not entirely on their own in assessing seriousness. They will derive guidance on the assessment of offence seriousness, particularly where sentence is being imposed in the Crown Court, from the guideline judgments of the Court of Appeal and, where sentence is being imposed by magistrates, from the Magistrates’ Association Guidelines (2000).