Does the prosecution landscape (charging, prosecution, and sentencing) vary in the UK for extremist actors depending upon the legal jurisdiction?

There is a lack of data regarding prosecution and sentencing for terrorism and terrorism-related offences across the three legal jurisdictions of the UK (England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). This project employed a review of relevant literature, interviews with stakeholders, analysis of judges’ sentencing remarks, and creation and analysis of a sentencing database (2001-2022) to answer key research questions about the prosecution landscape. The three main research questions were:

  1. What criminal offences (terrorism offences, terrorism-related, and violent extremism) are extremist actors being convicted of? Does type of offence differ based on extraneous factors such as ideological motivation and gender?
  2. What sentences are being imposed, and do sentences differ based on extraneous factors such as ideological motivation and gender?
  3. Is there any evidence of changes in sentencing over time that align with the introduction of sentencing guidelines in England & Wales, or major terrorism events?

Related to RQ1, results demonstrate that NI-related extremist actors are far more likely to be convicted of terrorism-related offences than terrorism or violent extremism offences. This is one of the clearest differences evident from the data. To a lesser extent, right-wing offenders are more likely than other motivation groups to be convicted of violent extremism offences, and Islamist offenders are more likely to be convicted of terrorism offences.

Related to RQ2, sentence length is influenced by offence type, plea, and total counts (all variables with legitimate impacts), but sentence length is also impacted by extraneous factors of gender and co-accused (i.e., whether an offender has co-defendants). Despite qualitative evidence to the contrary, ethnicity (white or non-white), age of an offender, and their ideological motivation were not shown to have an impact on sentences. According to the model, an individual most likely to receive the longest sentence would be a male with co-defendants, who does not plead guilty, is accused of multiple counts, and is charged under a terrorism-related offence.

Related to RQ3, sentence length has remained relatively steady over time (despite indications that it has increased). Number of offenders sentenced has fluctuated over time, with spikes in numbers appearing to align with contextual changes (including an increase in number of right-wing offenders sentenced after a clamp down in 2016). Analysis of all cases in E&W reveals no overall difference in sentences after implementation of the 2018 guidelines, but analysis of specific sections (s. 5, s. 58, and s. 2) reveals increases in sentences post-guidelines in each case.

Overall, despite qualitative evidence and indications from other sources that the prosecution of extremist actors is inconsistent across variables including ethnicity, age, and ideological motivation, we did not find an impact of these extraneous variables. This is positive evidence in favour of consistent use of legislation and sentencing sources, despite reports to the contrary. Differences were found relating to gender (women receive shorter sentences than men) and co-accused (having co-defendants increases sentences). We also found that ideological groups differ in offence type they are most likely to be convicted of, and that this may have indirect effects on sentencing.  These are considerations in striving for consistency in the implementation of legislation and sentencing sources.

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