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 -----------------------------------------------------------------