LETTER:Prison is the courts' last resort for fine defaulters

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NICK Cohen's article, "Thousands of petty criminals imprisoned 'unlawfully' " (28 January) gives a misleading report of the action taken against fine defaulters. This is a run-down of what happens in the court in which I serve as a magistrate and which I am assured is typical.

When a person is charged with, in Mr Cohen's words, a petty offence, a summons is sent to them to attend court or to plead by post. If this is ignored, the offence is proved in their absence and a fine levied if appropriate. Nothing is known of their means and therefore no allowance can be made for financial circumstance. The defendant is notified of the fine and any court costs, which can be appealed against.

Those who ignore the correspondence are sent a reminder to attend a means hearing to ascertain if the fine was fair and how it can be paid. If these summonses are ignored, the only option available to the court is to issue a warrant for arrest. A prison sentence is not imposed in the absence of the defaulter. When the defaulter is brought to court, an inquiry is held to determine whether there has been wilful refusal or culpable neglect in the non-payment of the fine. In this case, a suspended sentence will be passed. It will not be activated unless the defaulter fails to pay instalments agreed at the hearing, which can be less than pounds 4. The fine may be reduced. Under the present system, the court has no option but to impose a prison sentence on a fine defaulter. A community service order would make more sense but is not possible.

The report of the lady being sent to prison for non-payment of her rail fare is probably true, but what has been missed out in the telling of the story?

A fine is the lowest penalty on the punishment scale. If it cannot be enforced there will be no deterrent for the petty criminal.

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