Reformed drug addicts who have paid their dues to society should be encouraged to become magistrates, an influential think tank says today.
Policy Exchange calls for ex-offenders who have turned away from crime and become respected in their communities to be given a key role in the justice system following an overhaul of the composition of magistrates’ benches.
It backs a major expansion in the number of specialist courts which deal with low-level offenders suffering problems of drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. And it argues that former criminals, including people with a history of drug addiction, would be ideally suited to sit in such courts because of their background.
The think tank says that it is almost impossible for people to become magistrates if they have criminal convictions, even for minor motoring offences, and can also be banned if their partner has committed an offence.
It believes the virtual ban should be swept away to allow ex-offenders who have been crime-free for at least five years, and have paid back their communities by volunteering or other public service, to apply to become a lay magistrate.
A Policy Exchange paper, to be published in full next month, calls for an overhaul of the magistracy, which presides over more than 90 per cent of criminal cases.
It protests that magistrates do not reflect wider society, pointing out they are overwhelmingly white, middle class and older than their communities they serve. More than 55 per cent are over 60 years old, while just three per cent aged under 40.
This reform would lead to a greater turnover of magistrates, giving younger people more chance to fill vacant posts, Policy Exchange says.
Max Chambers, the think tank’s head of crime and justice, said magistrates had been “the pillars of our communities” since their creation 650 years ago.
But he added: “In today’s world whether you’re allowed to become a magistrate has got to be about more than whether you move in the same social circles as other magistrates.
“We need to open this system up to those with first-hand experience of what addiction and the criminal justice system are really like.
“Who better to help turn offenders’ around and make our streets safer than someone who’s been through it, come out the other side and is now making a positive contribution to society?”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said a criminal conviction did not automatically disqualify appointment as a magistrate. But he added: “The public has a right to expect that magistrates will be people of integrity and good character.
“For that very important reason, it will remain the case that anyone in whom the public is unlikely to have confidence will not be appointed to the magistracy.”