Punishment: Lord Chief Justice calls for fewer jail sentences

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The Lord Chief Justice warned magistrates and judges not to bow to media and political pressure to hand out more and more prison sentences. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, explains that his speech is part of an attempt to reduce the number of people in jail.

Lord Bingham said yesterday that the recent growth in the prison population has been caused by the pronouncements of "influentual public figures" about the effectiveness of sending criminals to prison, and not because of new laws.

Although couched in careful terms, his words will be seen as criticism of Michael Howard, the former Home Secretary, and the words of Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the present Home Secretary, while in Opposition; all emphasised a "tough on crime" message.

The Lord Chief Justice also sent out a message to judges and magistrates to guard against the public view that alternative sentences such as probation or community service were soft options.

His remarks, delivered in a speech to the National Probation Convention, are part of an attempt by the judiciary to tackle the problem of Britain's over-crowded jails by encouraging the use of non-custodial sentences where appropriate.

New figures are out today, but the number of people given prison sentences in 1995 - 79,100 - was the highest for ten years. Those given custody for indictable offences by magistrates in the same year was 20,200, nearly double the 11,800 of 1992.

Lord Bingham said that, faced with hard choices, judges and magistrates had been persuaded by the twin cocktail of media and political pressure to opt for custodial rather than other sentences.

"In contrast with a decade ago, when the efficacy of community penalties was widely canvassed, the emphasis has been on custody as the effective disposal in cases other than minor crime," he said.

"Judges and magistrates have been the subject of criticism - none the less influential because indirect - for imposing what are widely portrayed as excessively lenient sentences."

He went on: "The clear inference must be that in the classes of case in which a difficult choice has to be made between custody and a community penalty, magistrates in particular, but also judges, have increasingly been choosing the custodial option."

Lord Bingham said the growth towards penal sentences caused three main concerns: the injustice of unnecessary prison terms; their ineffectiveness in some cases; and their cost.

"The cost of imprisoning defendants is enormous, and growing," he said. "It may well be money well spent if it promotes the objective of reducing criminal activity to the irreducible minimum. But it is money very badly spent if it does not contribute to that objective."

The Magistrates Association said it broadly agreed with Lord Bingham's comments, and had helped to start pilot projects in Teeside and Shropshire. "We are optimistic that these projects will be successful in that they offer a range and mix of sentences."

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