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From 4th August magistrates throughout England and Wales will be obliged when sentencing to follow a rule book produced by the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Many years of judicial discretion and common law precedents are to be jettisoned in favour of a handbook produced behind closed doors. Its offensively condescending style is likely to annoy experienced magistrates who know what sentence will be acceptable to the public in a particular town or district.

Some of the guidelines are surprising. Possession of a bladed article is lumped together with possession of an offensive weapon, although in law the offensive weapon is clearly a more serious offence. Fewer burglars will go to prison. Only criminal damage to a value of over £5000 attracts a custodial sentence and people who steal their neighbours' cars can now expect only a Mickey Mouse fine.

On the other hand, failing to turn up at court is now to be treated severely. Many offenders lead chaotic lives. They have problems with drugs or alcohol, their accommodation is not secure, they lose their charge sheets and cannot remember court dates. Now, if their solicitor will have to advise them that they are at real risk of a prison sentence, they are not likely to surrender to the police. What planet, one wonders, do those who wrote these guidelines inhabit?The introduction of these prescriptive guidelines is not, however, surprising. The Sentencing Guidelines Council was set up by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to frame guidelines to promote consistency. In December 2007 Lord Carter, having produced a detailed report on criminal legal aid (which was then expertly and savagely dissected by a House of Commons committee) published his review of prisons "Securing the Future". He advocated the establishment of a Sentencing Commission whose role would be to prescribe a sentencing framework which would reduce the prison population, provide a means of predicting any increase and match the custodial sentences imposed to the prison places available.

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August 13th, 2008
4:08 PM
What's also missing is any evidence that anything but lip service has been paid to the aims of providing purposeful community disposals (programmes that really do affect offending behaviour, such as those that exist for drink impaired drivers, men who have committed domestic violence and those that are designed to 'replace aggression'), or of identifying and treating in appropriate settings those suffering from mental health problems. If but a tiny fraction of the vast sums (£2.3 billion in capital costs alone, plus an extra £250 million a year in running costs) earmarked for Lord Carter's Titan Prisons were to be spent on providing effective community alternatives and finding more appropriate means of dealing with women (18,000 children a year see their mothers locked up), increasingly criminalised children, and those with mental health problems were to be spent on properly resourcing the Probation Service, we might see the current trends reversed (see the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation's new "Manifesto" on Rethinking Crime and Punishment for more detail). Instead (despite a paltry one-off £40 million top-up earlier this year), Government plans to cut Probation funding by 3% per annum for the next three years! There ARE other ways of addressing offending, such as restorative justice, but also curfews and joint working with local authorities to deliver locally identified community enhancement projects. The structure of the new Guidelines may well deliver greater consistency, but it remains to be seen whether they reach the parts that other never-ending reams of legislation have failed to reach, in particular alcohol and drug fuelled anti-social behaviour, or result in anything but at best a short term dip in low level custodial sentences. I have my doubts!

August 12th, 2008
9:08 AM
Jan Davies is spot on with her assessment. As a serving Magistrate, I entirely agree with final her remark.

John H Smith
July 29th, 2008
4:07 PM
I hope that this article is widely read. For people who actually think about the consequences of the new regime, it ought to cause a great deal of concern

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