Magistrates may get sentences boost
Magistrates could be handed powers to hand out longer sentences as part of reforms of the criminal justice system.
But the Government is concerned that the move could lead to added pressure on the prison population and ultimately end up costing the taxpayer more, it emerged.
The possible reform was announced on Wednesday by Justice Minister Damian Green as he addressed magistrates on how their role could be best used. A range of changes are being considered as part of public consultation on how to overhaul the criminal justice system, including unclogging magistrates' courts and making them more efficient.
Mr Green said that four in 10 people sent to crown court to be sentenced could have been dealt with by magistrates, and more must be done to make the best use of them and to keep the right cases in the right court.
Measures include magistrates dealing with on-the-spot fines and some minor offences in an office rather than court, while they will also be given the power to scrutinise police's use of cautions.
Last year around 9,800 defendants were convicted by magistrates then committed to crown court for custodial sentences. But 40% of those received up to six months in prison, meaning they could have been dealt with in magistrates' court where the cost of a typical sitting day is around £1,400 per day, compared to £2,150 in the crown court.
Addressing magistrates at an event in London's Canary Wharf, Mr Green said the situation needed to be looked at, with one possible solution being to increase their sentencing powers to 12 months from the current six months they can hand out.
He said: "For some the obvious way to keep more cases in magistrates' courts will be to increase their custodial sentencing powers, and there is an attractive logic to this. However, there is also a risk that this could cause additional pressure on the prison population, because sentencing practices could change.
"We have done some work analysing the potential impact of increased powers - as have the Magistrates Association - and we now agree on the numbers involved. We maybe disagree on how easy it could be to realise any savings and on the costs of additional prison places. So we are keeping the case for increasing magistrates' custodial sentencing powers under review and in the meantime we will retain on the statute book the provisions that enable these increased powers."
Other plans include giving magistrates the right to scrutinise cautions and out-of-court penalties handed out by police, with the potential to over-rule them.