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Firearms: Sentencing

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 3 April 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice how many and what percentage of people convicted of carrying an illegal firearm under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 received the mandatory sentence established by the Act in each of the last four years, broken down by age group; and what the average length of sentence of those convicted of carrying an illegal firearm under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was in each of the last four years. (197743)

The table shows the number of persons sentenced to immediate custody of possession of an illegal firearm eligible for the mandatory minimum, and the proportion that received the mandatory minimum.

The mandatory minimum only applies to two offences;

‘possessing or distributing prohibited weapons or ammunition’ under s. 5(1) (a), (b), (aba), (ac), (ad), (ae), (af) or (c) of the Firearms Act 1968, as amended by s. 288 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

‘possessing or distributing firearm disguised as other object’ under s. 5(1A)(a) of the Firearms Act 1968, also as amended by s. 288 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

The mandatory minimum is five years for those aged 18 and over, and three years for those aged 16-17. The mandatory minimum came into affect in January 2004, and does not apply to those persons who committed offences before this date. The maximum penalty for these offences is 10 years.

The figures in the table are taken, from the Ministry of Justice (formerly Home Office) Court Proceedings Database and relate to sentences imposed (including life and indeterminate sentences) and the average sentence length of immediate custody (excluding life and indeterminate sentences) for those sentenced for such offences where the principal offence is the one for which they were found guilty. When a defendant has been found guilty of two or more offences it is the offence for which the heaviest penalty is imposed. Where the same disposal is imposed for two or more offences, the offence selected is the offence for which the statutory maximum penalty is the most severe. Where a person is convicted on the same occasion of one of these two firearms offences, and one such as homicide, conspiracy, robbery or GBH with intent (218 of OPA 1861) where the maximum is higher, the data in respect of the firearms offence will not have been included in the table.

Courts are required to impose the minimum sentence unless there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify not doing so. The purpose of the minimum sentence is to tackle gun crime and gun culture. It is not aimed at purely technical offences. Exceptional circumstances might therefore include where the holder of a firearms certificate inadvertently forgets to renew his authority or where a war trophy is discovered among a deceased person’s effects.

The Lord Chief Justice and I have concerns about the quality of this data and that relating to knife crime. An earlier project was undertaken that looked at cases reported to the Court Proceedings Database during the first 6 months of 2006 where the mandatory sentence was not given to persons aged 18 and over. These cases were checked with the Crown courts concerned. Of 65 cases, 12 were found to have the offence incorrectly classified (although two were still subject to the 5-year sentence). A further case had the custody duration recorded as five months instead of five years. Some 17 per cent. of Crown court cases checked therefore had the wrong offence classification. The majority correctly reflect the offence and court outcome although in few cases were the courts able to say whether exceptional circumstances, as allowed for in the Criminal Justice Act, had been the reason for the five year sentence not being imposed. Among reasons quoted were ‘gun incapable of being fired’, ‘defendant clinically depressed’, ‘technical breach only’ and ‘defendant too young for imprisonment’.

The Ministry of Justice is now looking to see if the situation has improved by looking at data from the first six months of 2007.

Persons1 sentenced for firearms possession offences2 involving mandatory custodial sentences, England and Wales

Of which: 5 years or over 3

Age group

Total persons sentenced

Persons given immediate custody

Number

Percentage of total sentenced

Average custodial sentence length (months)

20044

16-17

49

10

5

10.2

25.0

18-20

122

35

13

10.7

39.5

21 +

565

206

63

11.2

35.3

Total

736

251

81

11.0

35.3

2005

16-17

32

9

4

12.5

26.0

18-20

59

34

18

30.5

45.5

21 +

294

199

124

42.2

48.6

Total

385

242

146

37.9

47.3

2006

16-17

15

8

5

33.3

29.8

18-20

46

31

10

21.7

43.6

21 +

220

173

126

57.3

54.0

Total

281

212

141

50.2

51.6

1 Principal offence basis.

2 Possessing or distributing prohibited weapons or ammunition or firearm disguised as other object.

Firearms Act 1968 sections 5(1)(a), (ab), (aba), (ac), (ad), (ae), (af) or (c) and section 5(1 A)(a) as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 section 287.

3 Three years in the case of persons aged 16-17.

4 Many of the persons dealt with in 2004 will have committed their offences prior to the mandatory sentence being introduced in January 2004.

Note:

These figures have been drawn from administrative data systems. Although care is taken when processing and analysing the returns, the detail collected is subject to the inaccuracies inherent in any large scale recording system.

Source:

RDS-NOMS, Ministry of Justice

27 March 2008

PQ(RN)139-08