Magistrates placed in the dock over 'postcode justice'

Study reveals huge regional variation in sentencing of criminals - but is it down to bias, local prejudices or differing patterns of crime?
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If you are an inexperienced or incompetent thief and are thinking of stealing a car in London then it's probably best to commit the crime in the area covered by Horseferry Road magistrates' court. Assuming you are caught during your bungled break-in and given a jail sentence, you should expect to receive on average a 30-day prison term.

If, however, you are unfortunate enough to commit a similar offence in the nearby area covered by the South Western magistrates' court, the average prison sentence is about 130 days.

Similarly if you live in Devon and are the kind of person who goes round thumping people, pray you end up before the bench at the magistrates' court at Barnstaple and South Molton, rather than in Plymouth. According to the official figures, on average you will receive 30 days for assault occasioning actual bodily harm in Barnstaple compared with about 140 at Plymouth.

These huge differences in sentencing were what prompted David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to announce new guidelines yesterday. It is the age-old argument about "postcode justice" – the severity of your sentence, be it a fine, a community penalty, or prison, largely depends on which magistrates' bench you come up before rather than the crime you have committed.

The Home Office calls it inconsistencies in the system, whereas the association representing magistrates says it is regional variation that reflects the uniqueness of crimes and the circumstances under which they are committed.

Whatever your point of view, the most up-to-date crime figures for 2000 show massive variations in types of sentences as well as lengths of sentences.

An analysis by The Independent shows the magistrates' court that gave the toughest prison sentences across all offences was at Colwyn in North Wales where offenders on average were sent down for 7.3 months, compared with Tynedale in Northumberland, which handed out average sentences of about 27 days.

There were also enormous differences in the way courts used the different types of penalties. Deben in Suffolk, for example, fined a criminal in 60 per cent of the cases it sentenced, compared with Acton, west London, where only 22 per cent were fined and in Colwyn a mere 5 per cent. Weymouth and Portland in Dorset only sentenced people to a community punishment in about fifth of their cases, but in South Warwickshire it was about half.

Figures also showed variations for similar crimes, for example, 3.5 per cent of criminals convicted of receiving stolen goods in Reading were sent to jail, compared with 48 per cent for a similar offence in Greenwich and Woolwich in south-east London.

Many of the differences can be explained by the way the court system operates. For example an inner-city court may have to deal with a lot of extremely serious house burglaries, which are likely to be sent on to the crown court for sentencing because the magistrates do not have enough power. Whereas a rural court may deal with a lot of break-ins involving thefts from garden sheds. Not surprisingly these will attract a lower sentence.

But not all differences can be explained as technicalities. Even the Magistrates Association of England and Wales admits there is a problem.

Put simply, some magistrates' courts are considered to be biased and hand out justice according to their, and their local community's, prejudice.

Magistrates have also been criticised for being a closed shop that is dominated by white, middle-aged and middle-class professionals. This leads to the courts being viewed as out of touch and unrepresentative of the wider public.

At present to become a magistrate, which is an unpaid post, you must apply to the court or be nominated. A committee of magistrates and local dignitaries interviews the applicants and recommends candidates to the Lord Chancellor, who makes the final decision. Magistrates usually sit with two other lay members as well as a justice clerk who acts as a legal adviser.

In January 2000 there were 26,000 magistrates in England and Wales, with roughly equal numbers of men and women. Ethnic-minority JPs make up 4.5 per cent of the numbers. Of the 1,423 magistrates appointed in that year 306 were aged under 40, while 1,035 were aged from 40 to 60.

The Lord Chancellor's Department is introducing a series of measures to redress the imbalance. This includes a scheme for members of ethnic- minority groups to shadow a magistrate and then go into their communities and try to persuade people to volunteer for the job.

Under the proposals unveiled by Mr Blunkett yesterday at the Justices' Clerks' Society conference in Cardiff a body is being formed to draw up guidelines, which include minimum and maximum penalties, designed to achieve consistent sentencing in England and Wales. Where magistrates deviate from the guidelines they must give their reasons in court. The Home Secretary also announced that offenders who defaulted on fines would be made to do unpaid work instead of being sent to jail.

There is unrest among magistrates and opposition politicians, who fear the Home Office is trying to erode the independence of magistrates. But Mr Blunkett insisted: "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 that the punishment definitely fits the crime."

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation officers' union, Napo, is sceptical of the proposals. He said: "Issuing guidelines to magistrates has failed before and is likely to fail again."

Rachel Lipscomb, the deputy chairwoman of the Magistrates Association, believes that talk of postcode justice is outdated. The association believes consistency in sentencing is the important factor, not uniform punishments.

Ms Lipscomb argued: "You will always have variations in sentencing because it would be unjust and unfair if you didn't take into account that the same category of crime could have been committed under wildly different circumstances."

Yesterday's attempts to provided a "fairer" system mark the latest point of friction between a Government that wants greater transparency in the courts, but also more control over criminal justice matters, and a profession that is fighting to keep its independence and power.