David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, set out plans yesterday to bring greater consistency to sentencing offenders .
He announced proposals for a new body to draw up guidelines to achieve consistent sentencing across England and Wales after a Home Office survey revealed large geographical variations in punishments.
One of the findings showed that 3.5 per cent of criminals convicted of receiving stolen goods in Reading were sent to jail, compared with 48 per cent for the same offence in Greenwich and Woolwich in south-east London. Magistrates will be obliged to take the new guidelines into account and give reasons if they depart from them.
Mr Blunkett said: "Whilst we cannot expect uniform sentences, I am pressing for consistency of approach. This is not a threat to the independence of the magistracy who need to be able to take into account individual circumstances. But where circumstances are similar, we need to reduce the regional disparity in sentencing and make sure the punishment definitely fits the crime.
"This means putting an end to the sort of wide variations in sentencing that sees 20 per cent sentenced to immediate custody for burglary in Teesside compared with 41 per cent in Birmingham."
New minimum and maximum sentences are to be drawn up. But the Magistrates' Association warned uniform sentencing was unrealistic.
A spokeswoman for the association said the reasons for the variations in statistics had to be examined but said it was important to look at the reasons behind the inconsistencies.
"Each offender is different and there may be reasons why some areas appear to be out of sync," she said.
Mr Blunkett also said offenders who default on fines will be made to do unpaid work instead of being sent to jail.
David Blunkett said magistrates should be able to order defendants to "work off" their fine. The Home Secretary reiterated pleas to magistrates not to jail people for minor and non-violent crime after it was revealed prisons in England and Wales were just days from "busting point".
The prison population rose by 500 last week and reached a new record of 70,926 today, less than 600 from absolute maximum.Reuse content