Excessive leniency in sentencing of offenders

Other Names:
Excessive judicial leniency
Politically motivated reduction of prison sentences
Sentence squashing
Decriminalization of minor crimes
Dismissal of criminal charges to avoid government embarrassment

Prosecutors are often compelled to reduce charges if the legal system is to function at all. The practice in a country may be such that seemingly heinous crimes lead only to relatively lenient sentences, much to the dismay of victims or their relatives. Such sentences are perceived as adding insult to injury and provoke debates about the injustice of the legal system. Offenders with political or other connections may find that their sentences are much lighter than would otherwise be expected, or else are subsequently rapidly reduced after the publicity surrounding their case has died down. Many offenders avoid imprisonment.


In the USA, for example, offenders charged with burglary, armed robbery or mugging, with aggravated assault, murder, theft, or various attempted offences may be induced to plead guilty by reducing the charges against them in order to avoid trials wherever possible. In this way felony charges may be reduced to misdemeanours. Once a defendant has pleaded guilty to a reduced charge he will often get a suspended sentence or probation instead of the years in prison his felony legally deserved.

It is also tacitly accepted in the USA that cases concerning minor crimes (such as vandalism, shoplifting, minor assaults) should be adjourned until the complaining witnesses, namely the victims, get tired of wasting their time. And once they fail to appear, the case is dismissed.

Because of such procedures, many defendants on felony charges are not registered as having prior felony convictions (which would make for harsher sentences) since these would tend to have been reduced to misdemeanours, even in the case of serious offences. A juvenile record may be sealed. Convictions in other jurisdictions may not be taken into account for lack of information.

In 1993 the UK government planned to instruct police to cease responding to emergency calls regarding minor crimes and to concentrate on prolific criminals as part of a strategic shift designed to reverse a decade-long decline in clear-up rates. In the same period in the UK a man was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for a hit and run accident in which three women were killed, whilst another was sentenced to 18 months for abducting his son from his separated wife. Similarly an entrepreneur convicted of fraudulent trading, after his business empire collapsed and many investors lost their investments, was sentenced to 180 hours of community service; his trial was conducted with legal aid whilst he lived in his own luxury house. Earlier that year a person convicted of a £900 million fraud was acquitted after admitting guilt, whilst a poacher elsewhere in the country went to prison for 3 months for catching salmon in a net. Another person, given a reduced sentence for embezzlement as a sufferer from irreversible Alzheimer's disease, made medical history by speedily recovering thereafter.

In male-dominated cultures, judicial leniency may be gender-biased with regard to the treatment of males convicted of violence in situations involving adultery and male honour. In Brazil, for example, murder under such circumstances may be treated as "privileged homicide" rather than an intentional one.

Narrower Problems:
Light sentencing of defrauders
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
09.11.2020 – 19:35 CET