County magistrates more likely to impose jail terms

Kettering Magistrates Court
Kettering Magistrates Court

Magistrates in Northamptonshire have been urged to send fewer people to jail as figures reveal they are four times more likely to impose custodial sentences than elsewhere in the country.

The figures have been obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The charity says the figures show people who have been convicted of a crime in England and Wales face a postcode lottery when they are sentenced.

A growing number of magistrates’ benches are making good use of community sentences which reduce crime and help people to turn their lives around, a spokesman said, but some benches are still imposing prison sentences in cases where they are unnecessary.

Courts in Northamptonshire imposed custodial sentences in 6.5 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011, compared to equivalent rates of 1.5 per cent in Warwickshire and 1.6 per cent in Northumbria. The national average was 3.8 per cent.

Magistrates’ courts in Northamptonshire handed down 11,961 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 775 were custodial.

Overall, magistrates’ courts in England and Wales reduced their use of custody by a quarter between 2001 and 2011.

The maximum sentence a magistrates’ court can impose is a six-month prison term, or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “It is pleasing to see that magistrates’ courts are sending fewer people to prison overall than they have in the past. However, one cannot ignore the striking disparity in sentencing trends between different criminal justice areas.

“A short-term prison sentence is a catastrophe for everyone. It does not help change the life of the person sentenced – indeed, it is likely to compound issues such as drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend. It costs the taxpayer a fortune and it does nothing to help victims, who get no recompense or easing of trauma.

“A court which imposes short prison sentences increases the likelihood of local people becoming victims of crime, because the failure rate is so high.

“Community sentences are much cheaper than custody and they deliver better results. They not only address a person’s offending, but allow them to access other services they need, such as help with drink, drugs or mental health problems.”

The statistics have been published as Ministry of Justice figures show that short-term prison sentences are failing to cut crime. Only 36 per cent of adults who began community orders between April 2010 and March 2011 went on to reoffend within a year. This compares with 58 per cent of adults who completed a prison sentence of 12 months or less during the same period.

A survey conducted by the Howard League and the Prison Governors’ Association also found many prisoners preferred a short-term prison sentence to a community sentence because they were easier to complete.