Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Call to curb sentencing powers

Campaigners want magistrates stripped of their power to hand down prison sentences

Magistrates should be stripped of their power to hand down prison sentences, campaigners have said.

The move would "reduce short-term sentences and compel magistrates to work more closely with community projects and programmes", the Howard League for Penal Reform said.

But the Magistrates' Association said the "unwarranted attack" on members of the judiciary showed "a complete lack of understanding of the nature of offenders who appear in magistrates' courts".

More than 50,000 prison sentences were handed down by magistrates in 2008, with the average length being less than three months, Ministry of Justice figures showed.

The number of short prison sentences is falling, but such sanctions are still needed to deal with offenders who frequently breach community orders, the Magistrates' Association said.

In its response to Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's Breaking the Cycle green paper on sentencing, the Howard League said "more courageous action" was needed by Government to address the problem.

Magistrates should be required to commit a defendant to Crown Court first if they thought an immediate jail sentence was needed, the campaigners said.

"Magistrates' over-use of custody could be prevented if they were required to remand an individual to the Crown Court for a custodial sentence," they said. "This would reduce short-term sentences and compel magistrates to work more closely with community projects and programmes."

But John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: "The Howard League is irresponsible in suggesting that magistrates should not be allowed to impose a custodial sentence on any offender who has committed an offence which is so serious that only a prison sentence is right.

"It is an unwarranted attack on those members of the judiciary who deal with over 95% of all criminal matters and shows a complete lack of understanding of the nature of offenders who appear in magistrates' courts."

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