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November 29, 2016

Should magistrates get greater sentencing powers?

I risk the wrath of magistrates up and down the land in opposing the extension of magistrates’ (and district judges’) sentencing powers.  Many (most?) magistrates would like to have the power to sentence someone for a year for one offence, rather than six months as now.  But I have always had a hunch that, in general, magistrates courts make decisions in a very different way to Crown Courts, and thus that increasing sentencing powers may result in increased prison numbers. There is nothing in the public domain to say that is the case, which is why I would rather not take the risk.  But I have been pouring over some Ministry of Justice figures which suggest that penal reformers like myself, the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust might be right.

I am not a statistician so please correct me if I am way off beam.  The figures I refer to are the criminal justice system statistics quarterly for 2015 and there are two relevant tables (see overview tables)

Table 4.4 relates to what happens to those remanded in custody by a magistrates’ or Crown Court.  Even though the reasons for remand should not be directly linked to the offence, it is the case that those remanded are usually accused of more serious offences, and the offences of those remanded by the Crown Court are likely to be even more serious than those in the magistrates’ court.   Yet of those remanded, 12% of magistrates’ disposals are community or suspended sentences or fines vs 11.2% for Crown Court judges. This is a tiny difference given the more serious profile of those remanded by the Crown Court.  See also p 17.

Perhaps more telling are the acquittal rates. Of those remanded in custody (and remember the Crown Court is likely to be dealing with those accused of more serious offences) the Crown Court acquits 12.5% vs 9.9% in the magistrates’ court. So of all those remanded in custody, a higher proportion get acquitted/community/suspended sentence/fine in the Crown Court than in the magistrates’ court.

Overall acquittal rates are higher in the Crown Court than the magistrates’ court too.  Table 3.1 shows the acquittal rate for either way offences (which can be heard in either court).  I make it that of those tried in the magistrates’ court 2.5% of defendants were found not guilty.  In the Crown Court, 16.9% of those tried were acquitted. (the conviction trial rate is 97.5% in mags vs 85.8% in Crown Court)

I am really interested in hearing from anyone who thinks I have got these figures wrong.

Also can I say that I am a huge supporter of the magistracy, who feels they need more support in many ways.