Letter: Magistrates hindered by policy changes

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Sir: Present government policies make it impossible for the courts to deal effectively with young offenders. Viewers of the recent Crime and Punishment series on BBC 2 will have seen some of the difficulties. As a magistrate who has served for many years on the juvenile (now youth) court, and who has now resigned, I should like to highlight two problems.

Fines are an obvious penalty for minor offences. The government policy of no benefit for 16- and 17-year-olds frequently makes the use of fines impossible. It is often patently unjust to penalise their parents, and I do not believe that people who pontificate about parental control could exercise it in many of the situations that confront the courts. Magistrates, instead of fining, may be using conditional discharges, imposed not because they are suitable penalties but because they are the only ones available. The offender tends to be unimpressed.

An attendance centre order for more serious offences can be valuable. It combines an element of punishment with a constructive regime - and even the self-discipline needed to get there. These orders can now be refused by the young offender because the 1991 Act withdrew the threat of custody for failing to obey them.

Government policy means that the courts cannot provide children and adolescents with a firm, early response to unacceptable behaviour. This is certainly not in the best interests of the child. It also means that the public cannot realistically expect the courts to maintain standards. It needs changing.

Yours faithfully,


Portsmouth, Hampshire