Open Eye: Long sentences may be imposed by 'Sun' readers

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The Independent Online
The idea of advertisements for judges appearing in papers like the Sun, the News of the World and Inside Soap sounds like the introduction to a joke, yet this is exactly what has just happened.

Lay magistrates sit in judgment over their fellows in criminal law courts throughout the country every day. They deal with 95 per cent of all criminal cases from start to finish.

Magistrates regularly impose sentences of imprisonment and fines of up to pounds 20,000. They deal with matters relating to children and families, and with licensing issues.

Although they are not legally qualified and do not receive payment for the work, magistrates clearly act as judges.

In a move to open the appointment of magistrates to a wider section of society, the government has just launched an advertising campaign aimed at ordinary people, with the message: "Have you ever thought about serving your community by becoming a magistrate?".

Advertisements have appeared in a wide range of papers - but the aim is clearly to move away from an elite middle-class Bench.

No advert was placed in the New Statesman but one did go into something called TV Quick. You cannot help wondering whether, for the new recruits, a legal updating bulletin will be produced called Justice Quick.

In some ways, it is self-evidently desirable that the legal system is operated on as open-access a basis as is possible, and by as demotic a personnel as possible. The greater the number of open-minded people in any system, the better for everyone.

Justices of the Peace can be traced back to 1195 when Richard I commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. Originally there were property qualifications for the job to ensure JPs were independent and not easily corruptible.

Although the property qualification was not abolished until as late as 1906, since then the movement to democratise the delivery of local justice has gained pace.

There are, though, ways in which the latest People's Justice might bring unexpected results.

Liberal thinkers who imagine that workers in the dock will get a more sympathetic hearing from their fellows than they do now from upper-middle class JPs might be in for a shock.

Workers giving judgment upon their fellows from the same sort of districts can often be decidedly punitive and unforgiving.

The idea that criminals should be strung up - "it's the only language they understand" - is probably expressed more often in the pubs of Peckham than in the clubs of Mayfair.

Working-class intolerance of crime and people who commit it can be easily explained. Crime hits workers who live in ordinary homes and districts much more than it affects people in the more exclusive middle-class parts of town.

There are about five million serious crimes recorded each year, 60 per cent of which comprise just two types of offence: burglary and car crime. Most of these crimes are committed in the residential areas from which the government is now looking for magistrates.

Home Office research has shown that people living in the poorer districts of towns are more than twice as likely to be burgled than are those in the affluent districts.

There are now a great many cases from all over Britain showing exactly what a group of local working-class vigilantes are capable of when, exasperated at the failures of the criminal justice system to clear crime out of their neighbourhoods, they take the law into their own hands. Hands, it should be noted, that often grip a baseball bat.

In an exercise for a television documentary last year, ordinary members of the public were invited to pass sentence in criminal cases that were set out for them. They were given instruction about the law and the various tariffs of sentencing operated by judges.

The sentences of real judges for the same cases were then shown, and the judicial reasoning given, and, in almost all cases, the citizen imposed much harsher sentences than the judge.

The common predilection for penological solutions to crime is not just a British phenomenon. The people of Texas recently voted against a $750 million proposal to build new schools but voted in favour of a $1billion plan for new prisons.

Britain already has one of the highest percentages of imprisonment of the adult population in Europe. About 80 per cent of those incarcerated are there for property crimes - not the huge heists of organised criminals but relatively small-scale offences.

There is no convincing evidence that imprisonment is a good way to achieve anything here, apart from boost the profits of the progressively privatised penal system, and to enlarge future miseries when the punished are released back into the community to re-offend.

Official governmental documents require that magistrates are people able to "weigh up evidence and reach reasoned decisions".

They should, we are told, "be able to sit and concentrate for long periods of time".

Just how rich a pool of people with these qualities is offered by the readerships of the Sun and the News of the World remains to be seen.

Dr Gary Slapper is Director of the Law Programme at the OU.