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Are magistrates using prison because they don’t know enough about community alternatives?

Penelope Gibbs
01 Apr 2016

Its reassuring in a way to see how concerned magistrates themselves are about deficiencies in their training.  Reassuring only because it backs up the findings of our report “Fit for purpose? Do magistrates get the training and development they need”, that they don’t.  This is just some of the evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the role of the magistracy: “The National Bench Chairmen’s Forum is concerned that not all magistrates attend training and it is not compulsory”, “The training budget has been reduced to such an extent that it hardly exists. Without a properly funded training process, magistrates’ competence will diminish over time”  (JP), “In my opinion the training available to magistrates is barely adequate in terms of law and procedure, and I would be surprised if any magistrate thought themselves adequately prepared or even stretched” (JP).  Training matters, because magistrates are ordinary people, who may know very little of the law, and may have hardly been in a court before they are appointed to dispense justice over their peers.

New research with magistrates shows why training may affect use of imprisonment.  Gemma Birkett, lecturer at City University, asked magistrates about their knowledge of women offenders, and of sentences specially designed for women. Government policy is clear – Minister Caroline Dineage recently said she was keen “to intervene earlier in women’s offending journey to make sure that the right wrap-around services are put in place to try and divert as many people as possible away from ending up in prison”, but eight in ten women who are sentenced to custody are still sent there for non-violent offences.

Some magistrates are conflicted as to whether to treat women differently at all – one magistrate said “gender-specific sentencing is inherently wrong and should be discouraged”.  Others felt women with children “should know better”: “how many times can you say well she’s got six kids it’s OK? I wouldn’t be swayed by the fact that this lady’s got children, because she knew she’s got those children before she embarked on this life of crime”.

Most of the magistrates did take into account if a woman was caring for young children when sentencing, but they had little knowledge of the provision of community sentences in their area and, even when they did, they had little confidence in them: “we have no awareness of what might be out there, where the probation send them, what they actually do”. Less than a quarter had received any training on women and offending, yet they were keen to know more.

It is impossible to say that lack of training and information about community sentences for women, leads to greater imprisonment.  But it can’t help.  Yet again, I wonder if the desire to save money in one justice silo, may be causing greater expenditure in another.  Spending (excluding core costs) on magistrates’ training has gone down from £110 to £36 per magistrate per year in the last seven years.  At the same time the prison population has continued to rise, and the use of community sentences has nearly halved since 2006.  The government has also made short prison sentences more “attractive” to sentencers, through mandating 12 months of supervision post release.  Magistrates themselves feel their lack of training is making them incompetent.  If we spent relatively small amounts training magistrates better, and giving them better quality information, we may reap huge financial benefits in reduced use of imprisonment.