Magistrates 'should lose power to jail offenders'

MAGISTRATES should lose the power to send people to prison because of their erratic sentencing practices, according to civil liberties campaigners.

A study of magistrates' courts - which deal with 90 per cent of all criminal cases - by the National Council for Civil Liberties reveals 'gross variations' around the country in the way they deal with offenders.

The research found, for example, that in 1990 South Tameside bench in Manchester sent about one in five of the adult male offenders who appeared before it to prison - compared to the national average of one in twenty. Five benches did not imprison anyone. As an area, offenders in Devon and Cornwall are far more likely to go to jail (7.27 per cent) rather than, say, in Dyfed Powis (2.9 per cent).

The report, Unequal before the Law, concludes that the disparity could have a major impact on the prison population. If during the 1980s all courts employed the sentencing practices of South Tameside, 283,561 men would have been jailed. If it was the Mid- Worcestershire practice, 24,340. In reality the figure was 121,700.

The report says that there is no statistical correlation between rates of crime and use of prison in specific areas.

'If law and order can be maintained adequately in Shepton Mallet without sending anyone to prison, why does South Tameside send almost a fifth of a similarly sized population of offenders to prison?' the report asks.

It notes that over the years magistrates have used prison as a punishment less and have also been giving shorter sentences. In 1990 on average magistrates handed out sentences of 2.6 months. From 1988 onwards there have been a small but growing number of benches not imprisoning anyone. The new Criminal Justice Act introduced this month should result in a further decline.

The report says: 'The classic justification for imprisonment includes just desserts, the protection of society and reform. If these men only 'deserve' a few weeks in prison, might they not be thought to deserve something that happens in the community instead? Equally, society is not greatly protected by an offender's absence for so short a period. And hardly anyone would claim that rehabilitation is taking place in the police stations and local prisons where many short sentences are currently being served.'

John Wadham, legal officer of Liberty, said yesterday: 'Such blatant examples of injustice lead us to conclude that the power of magistrates to imprison should be abolished. At the very least there needs to be a judicial inquiry into the inequalities of sentencing between courts and additional training and guidance to those benches which regularly exceed the national average by 50 per cent or more.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- PETTY SESSIONAL DIVISIONS 1990 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Percentage of males 21 and over sent straight to prison. Top 10 imprisoners: South Tameside 17.44 Clerkenwell 15.39 Hastings 15.30 Exeter 13.22 Plymouth 11.66 Folkestone and Hythe 11.46 Ashton-under-Lyne 10.78 Stourbridge 10.58 Maidstone 10.04 Tower Bridge 9.82 Bottom 10 imprisoners: Barnet 1.03 Lliw Valley 0.88 Maidenhead 0.85 Yeovil 0.81 Houghton-le-Spring 0.49 North Anglesey 0 Mold 0 Shepton Mallet 0 East Retford 0 Eastleigh 0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Recruitment Genius: Magento Front End Web Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore