Public expectations of sentencing for death by driving offences are not being met, according to research published today by the Scottish Sentencing Council.

The research will be used in the Council's project to develop a sentencing guideline for use by courts when dealing with offenders.

Members of the public, including relatives of victims of such offences, took part in the research, which was carried out by ScotCen Social Research on behalf of the Council. It examines public understanding of and attitudes to sentencing for death by driving offences as well as experiences and views of the justice system. 

Overall, participants felt that their expectations of sentencing for death by driving offences were not met. Charge reductions and guilty plea discounts among other things were cited as contributing to this sense of leniency. Some, family members in particular, were frustrated by the fact that the maximum sentence is unused.

Participants considered that proportionality was of very high importance when sentencing these offences. In the main, they thought sentences should increase in line with the culpability of the offender. Certain factors should carry more weight than others, including the seriousness of the offence and the risk-of reoffending. 

However they did not always have a clear understanding of the offences, or on sentencing generally. Although there was a general perception that sentencing for death by driving offences is inconsistent and does not meet expectations, some changed their views after completing a sentencing exercise, citing the many factors that need to be considered. 

In fact a wide range of views were expressed. For example, while it was thought that prison should be an available option for all death by driving offences, some thought it only appropriate in the most serious offences, and there were views that community-based sentences were more likely to support rehabilitation. 

The range of views expressed reflects some of the difficulties involved in the sentencing of these cases, when the culpability of the driver can sometimes be very low in comparison with the great harm caused.

Family members of victims made a number of suggestions for areas in which criminal justice processes might be improved. The Council will give consideration to those suggestions within its responsibilities, and otherwise ensure these views are passed on to the responsible bodies.

David Harvie, chair of the Council’s Death by Driving Committee, commented: "Death by driving offences are some of the most serious cases which come before the courts and are of significant public interest. This research is an important step towards the development of the Council’s guideline on sentencing for these offences. 

"We are grateful to those who gave their time to participate in this study and in particular for the insights shared by those who have lost loved ones in such tragic circumstances."

He added: "We will consider carefully the findings of this research, and the views expressed, in our development of a guideline on death by driving offences and in our wider work to improve awareness and understanding of sentencing."

Click here to view the research report.