Courts accused of 'justice by geography' for young

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The Independent Online

Young people who are convicted in court are 14 times more likely to receive a jail sentence in some parts of England and Wales than others, research for the Government showed yesterday.

Young people who are convicted in court are 14 times more likely to receive a jail sentence in some parts of England and Wales than others, research for the Government showed yesterday.

The Youth Justice Board yesterday criticised magistrates in some areas for jailing young people unnecessarily. The board said that the magistrates appeared to be unaware of the non-custodial punishments now available to the courts as an alternative to custody.

From next year the board will publish tables showing which courts are making the least use of the new community punishments and sending most young people to prison.

The research found that an average of 7.7 per cent of young people appearing before magistrates were sent to prison. But the rate varied from 2 per cent to 28 per cent in different courts. Young people appearing before magistrates in the greater London area were more likely to be sent to prison than those in the north of England.

The difference in sentencing patterns - attributed by the report to distinct local "sentencing cultures" - is putting great pressure on young offenders' institutions in some areas.

Lord Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, warned of the dangers of "justice by geography" and called for magistrates to make greater use of community punishments and to adopt a uniform sentencing pattern across England and Wales.

He said: "We want youth courts to make full use of all the new orders available to them and to discuss with youth justice professionals the best options available for young offenders."

The researchers also asked magistrates in different areas to consider a series of fictional cases. Although the cases' facts were presented identically, there were wide discrepancies in proposed sentences.

The report called for action in the "high custody" areas to reduce the number of jail sentences and increase the use of community sentences, such as probation orders and supervision orders.

Other options for courts sentencing young offenders over the age of 16 include voice-tracking - where offenders are issued with pagers and must report to probation staff from nominated telephones - and electronic tagging.