Youth courts told to speed up sentencing

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The new Lord Chancellor yesterday fired the opening shot in the Government's drive to halve the time from arrest to sentencing of persistent young offenders.

Lord Irvine urged all magistrates to end the current "adjournment culture" in which neither offenders nor lawyers expect cases to be disposed of, or even make progress, at the initial hearing.

In a letter to chairmen of youth courts throughout England and Wales, he encourages JPs, who are independent of government, that "wherever possible and consistent with the interests of justice" they should sentence a greater proportion of cases at first hearing and be more critical of applications for adjournments.

Where an adjournment appears unavoidable, magistrates should be ready to question the amount of time needed before the next hearing and set a clear timetable for the remaining action, the letter says.

JPs should also "consider very carefully" whether a pre-sentence report is always necessary. "Speed is essential," Lord Irvine says. "Delay disconnects the offence from the punishment and may waste months of the young person's development."

Cutting the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders was a manifesto pledge at the election and is part of the Government's campaign to tackle the hard core of young offenders, and so-called "spree offending", where a young criminal commits a string of offences while on bail for an earlier crime.

But the promise will be difficult to deliver by legislation alone. Citing last year's Audit Commission report, Misspent Youth, which found that only 17 per cent of young offenders were sentenced at first hearing, Lord Irvine says in the letter: "About half the time taken to deal with a young offender occurs before first listing in the youth court and we will be taking steps to reduce that time dramatically. However, the other half of the time occurs after the case has reached the youthcourt."

Lord Irvine promised magistrates full consultation in advance of an autumn White Paper on changes in the youth courts, and the promised Crime and Disorder Bill, which will enshrine fast-track punishment in law, create new sentencing powers for courts and establish local inter-agency partnerships for tackling and controlling offending behaviour.

The initiative follows the announcement on Wednesday by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, of the establishment of a Youth Justice Task Force, made up of representatives from the police, probation and social services and government departments to advise on his planned shake-up of the youth justice system.

The Magistrates' Association, which has already issued its own guidance on reducing adjournments, gave a guarded response to the letter, saying it "fully supports practical measures to address delay" but emphasising that all the agencies involved in youth justice had key roles to play in dealing swiftly and effectively with young offenders.

The association praised the Government's proposal for juveniles to receive one final warning instead of repeated cautions, but added: "Apparent delays are sometimes caused by the demands of justice and the recognised right of the defendant to seek legal advice."

Anne Fuller, the association's chairwoman, said: "We are not against change but all magistrates wish to see a well considered, practical and full review, not quick patchwork measures."