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November 9, 2014

The controversy surrounding giving magistrates greater sentencing powers

I’m not sure why Simon Hughes wanted to stop magistrates having increased sentencing powers but in the Independent this week he was quoted as saying he had prevented the government increasing magistrates sentencing powers from 6 to 12 months imprisonment.  It was not at all clear why, but the context of the article suggests Simon felt magistrates might be more punitive than crown court judges currently are, and thus push up prison numbers.  This is an issue that has been rumbling on for a while.  The Conservative 2010 election manifesto said “We will … extend the length of custodial sentences that can be awarded in a magistrates’ court from six to twelve months.”  But in August 2013, the then minister Damian Green announced that this would not happen because of “a risk that this could cause additional pressure on the prison population, because sentencing practices could change”.  It would be easy for magistrates’ sentencing powers to be increased because legislation was passed in 2003 to allow it, but never enacted.  The Magistrates Association is still lobbying hard to get this increased power,  District Judges are probably also influencing behind the scenes.  And the Times ran a story in late August that David Cameron himself had committed to the change at a reception at Number 10.

The issue is clouded by lack of data.  We need to see the models of what might happen to the prison population with this change.  The MoJ apparently estimated in 2011 that an extra 3,400 prison places would be required but the MA and the Chief Magistrate disagree “magistrates insist that in a “worst case scenario”, the rise in inmates would be no more than 1,000 a year and the chief magistrate, District Judge Howard Riddle, has said that the increased powers would “almost certainly result in a reduced use of custody and shorter sentences” (the Times August 30th 2014). As well as seeing the MoJ modelling, it would be interesting to separate out lay magistrates and district judges.  Previous research has suggested that District Judges are slightly more likely to use prison than lay magistrates.  But the MoJ will have numbers – why can’t we see them?

Until we have those numbers, I am with Simon Hughes and Damian Green, in not supporting greater sentencing powers.  We need to know more.  I also feel that, if magistrates were to be given the increased powers, they would need a much greater investment in training and the appeals system would need to be improved.  As it is, there are many barriers to offenders appealing a sentence they received in the magistrates’ court.  If they could get longer sentences, it would be essential to make appealing easier.