The warning, in the first of a series of meetings with magistrates, was coupled with an explicit reminder that prison should be reserved for more serious cases and only used in last resort for fine defaulters.
Urging Newcastle upon Tyne magistrates to "get tough" on lawyers seeking repeated adjournments, Lord Mackay said youth courts had to be able to link in the mind of the young person the consequences of criminal behaviour, and the punishment with the offending behaviour itself.
Advice recently issued by the Magistrates Association and the Justices' Clerks Society already suggests that in cases of "spree offending" by juveniles on bail, JPs should depart from the usual practice of tying up all outstanding cases so that they can be dealt with together.
This approach was firmly endorsed by Lord Mackay yesterday. "It's important that the magistrates should understand that they are in charge," he said.
He urged the Newcastle justices last night to be "careful to ensure that the period of the adjournment is used effectively by all concerned and that one adjournment will not simply lead to another request for a further adjournment at a later stage in the case."
Once the link between the crime and the outcome of the court case was broken, the notion of "getting away with it" was reinforced in the offender's mind, he said.
Last autumn's scathing Audit Commission report on juvenile justice, Misspent Youth, got a low-key response from the Government. But Lord Mackay invoked the spending watchdog's study yesterday, saying it showed a "disturbingly high number of adjournments in youth cases, often for very understandable reasons. It reports an average of four appearances in the course of a youth-court case. This is in no one's interests, least of all that of the young accused."
The Lord Chancellor also appeared prepared to challenge the present obsession with imprisonment: "If I may speak ... directly, prison is a key deterrent to criminal behaviour and needs to be reserved for the more serious cases." The eightfold increase in immediate custodial sentences over the last 10 years was "staggering", he said.
"That is not to say that the sentences were not justified but such increases must give cause for reflection. It is not sensible for prisons to be full of petty offenders who can better be dealt with in other ways," he said.
He urged magistrates to ensure that fines were seen as a punishment rather than getting off lightly. Courts should settle payment arrangements at the point at which the fine was imposed, Lord Mackay suggested. "It is worth asking the offender explicitly, `What are you going to pay today?"Reuse content