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July 12, 2013

Is post-code sentencing inevitable?

There will always be some differences between courts in their sentencing.  An Inner London court will send more offenders to prison than one in Taunton.  This week the Howard League released figures showing how some areas appear to imprison women more than others.  The magistrates’ courts in Cumbria imposed immediate custodial sentences in 2.7% of cases in 2011 – four times the rate of areas such as Lincolnshire and Wiltshire.  The phenomenon of “post-code sentencing” has long been known in criminal justice.  In 2007 the Ministry of Justice published a study which showed that adults who committed similar offences were treated less or more punitively in different courts.  There is similar evidence about the imprisonment of teenagers, where the proportion imprisoned (of those convicted) varied from 2 to 20% in different areas.  Overall, evidence shows that justice is not meted out the same throughout England and Wales.  But I would sound a note of caution.  To really assess post-code sentencing you need to compare sentencing behaviour for similar offenders and similar offences, which is a very time consuming and expensive academic task.  Rates of imprisonment, which the Howard League used here (and I did at the Prison Reform Trust) only indicate post-code sentencing – they don’t prove it.

While sentencing guidelines allow for quite a lot of latitude in sentencing, there will always be differences between areas.  As judges say, sentencing is an art not a science.  But there are differences which are unacceptable.  One area should not have a very high rate of imprisoning teenagers for years on end.  The differences are often cultural – a court gets into sentencing habits and may not know they are unusual or out of line.  Part of the answer is to improve information to courts,  another to enhance training. All judges and magistrates want to reduce imprisonment – they just need help to do so.