The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Short Sentences

Kenneth Clarke is carrying out an overdue review of prison policy; for nearly two decades the agenda has been driven by a culture of longer and more severe sentences. In my time on the bench the prison population has pretty much doubled (it weren't me Guv, honest!)and the Justice Secretary is asking why.
It's a complex issue, and I certainly don't have all the answers. What I do have is a good understanding of many of the questions. Here's a selection:-

At Magistrates' level, it's actually pretty unusual to send anyone inside. I sit quite often, and I can't think offhand of more than a few immediate (i.e. not suspended) sentences that I have announced in the last six months.
Discount for a guilty plea, automatic release at halfway, and prison discretion to use tagging and other early releases means that JPs' real power, for a guilty plea, is to lock someone up for just over eight weeks. At that level the prison can only warehouse prisoners. There is barely time even to assess them, let alone carry out any rehabilitation work.
The vast majority of people who go inside from my court do so having been refused bail. Large numbers of those remanded in custody either do not receive a custodial sentence or are given a term that is less than they have already served. This is often the case with alleged domestic violence - but if we get one of those wrong we have a dead woman on our hands.
It is a truism that short sentences are ineffective at rehabilitation, and even the undoubted incapacitation effect is too short to be of much real use. The question that nobody has addressed is how non-custodial sentences such as unpaid work and community orders are to be enforced without the threat of prison as a last resort. Lads who just walk off their unpaid work, or cut off their tag, will be untouchable.
If JPs lose the power to imprison such people, as well as persistent disqualified drivers, very high-level repeat drink-drivers, shoplifters with 50 previous convictions and the like, the number of offences is likely to rocket. Drive disqual. and excess alcohol are summary-only offences with no power to send them to the Crown Court, so young Wayne can drive on his merry way, licence or no licence.
In the Crown Court the impact of IPP (indeterminate) sentences has been greatly to lengthen time served, as the prisoner is not released at the end of his term, but has to be assessed by the Parole authorities. In a Kafka-esque twist, many prisons cannot offer access to the courses and facilities that will allow them to show that they are no longer a danger, so the prisoner languishes in his cell, unable to help himself.
Sentencing for drug offences can be awesomely severe, more so in many cases than for physical violence. One of my old schoolmates received 20 years in 2002 for importing cocaine; I guess he will still be inside.
Then there is the question of community sentences. Probation has been under-resourced and buggered about for so long that many sentencers are sceptical about the way in which community sentences are enforced. If we order 'supervision' as part of the sentence, did we really have in mind a monthly phone call from a probation officer, after the initial period has elapsed?
I have no idea what the government will decide to do. The question may be linked to the excess capacity in many magistrates' courts and the overloaded lists of most Crown Courts. Increasing the lower courts' powers might help clear the logjam - after all a goodly proportion of cases sent upstairs by magistrates end up being sentenced within the lower court's powers. Whatever happens, it will certainly be linked to saving money, along with all of the other changes in the system.