Offenders given 'soft sentences' under new law: Lack of information ties magistrates' hands

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PERSISTENT offenders are escaping punishment because magistrates are not being given the information they need to hand out tough sentences under the Criminal Justice Act.

Under the Act, magistrates can only levy harsh sentences for defendants with criminal records after studying the 'circumstances' of previous offences. But in many areas, magistrates say that neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service are able to supply the necessary details, forcing them to treat persistent offenders as if they were before the court for the first time.

The Government is to attempt to computerise court records by 1995. Until then the problems will continue, according to magistrates who are sceptical about the Home Office's ability to meet that target.

Magistrates believe that the failure to supply them with full information has been one of the reasons for public hostility towards the Act.

Lawyers say that the Act intended to restrict the extent to which magistrates could give tougher sentences for persistent offenders. Nevertheless, they say this tendency has been greatly exaggerated by the paucity of information made available to the bench. 'In theory, they are supposed to be able to take previous offences into account in some circumstances,' said a solicitor who has worked in magistrates' courts. 'But in practice, they often can't do this.'

This had led to complaints that hardened criminals were getting away with soft sentences, allowing them to reoffend in the knowledge that they were unlikely to be punished, he said.

The Court of Appeal said recently that magistrates were entitled to call for a comprehensive resume of defendants' previous offences. But, according to the Magistrates' Association, this is often impracticable, with only sketchy details being given.

Magistrates are to meet the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, next month to discuss their concerns. However, a Home Office spokesman said yesterday: 'If sentencers feel that the material is inadequate then the correct course of action is to defer sentence until that information is found.'

A magistrate has resigned from the Teesside bench in protest at the Criminal Justice Act. John Duffy said that it was preventing him from handing out appropriate punishment to hardened criminals.