Justice by postcode: variety in magistrates' sentences revealed

The number of criminals sent to prison by magistrates in England and Wales varies dramatically depending on which court does the sentencing, research reveals today.

Ministry of Justice statistics show that, despite strict national guidelines, someone convicted of a crime in Derbyshire is four times more likely to be sent to prison that someone convicted in Northumbria.

Researchers from the Howard League for Penal Reform analysed sentencing data provided for each criminal justice area in England and Wales. This revealed that in England, courts imposed custodial sentences in, on average, 3.8 per cent of cases in 2011, down from 4.9 per cent in 2001. The rate in Wales rose over the same period, however, from 4.0 per cent to 4.3 per cent.

But within the figures huge discrepancies exist. For example, criminals in Birmingham were given immediate jail sentences in nearly 6 per cent of cases, while the number in London was around 4 per cent. Although the figures are small in percentage terms, every year around 13,000 are imprisoned across both areas.

The figures also showed that while some parts of the country – including Bedfordshire, Dorset, Durham and Kent – had cut their use of prison, courts in Derbyshire, Gwent and Northamptonshire imposed prison terms more frequently in 2011 than they did in 2001.

The maximum prison sentence a magistrates' court can impose is six-months, or up to 12 months for more than one offence.

Magistrates' courts in England and Wales handed down almost 1.2 million sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which more than 46,000 were custodial.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the striking disparity in sentencing trends was disturbing.

"A short-term prison sentence is a catastrophe for everyone. It does not help change the life of the person sentenced – indeed, it is likely to compound issues such as drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend," she said.

The Justice minister Jeremy Wright said the Government supported calls for fewer short prison sentences. "Prison will always be the right place for the most serious and persistent offenders," he said. "But reoffending rates are unacceptably high – and are currently highest among those sentenced to short prison sentences."

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