Magistrates in Sussex are more than twice as likely to send someone to prison as courts in other parts of the country – according to figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
New research by the charity shows that people who have been convicted of a crime in England and Wales face a postcode lottery when they are sentenced, said a charity spokesperson. “A growing number of magistrates’ benches are making good use of community sentences which reduce crime and help people to turn their lives around. However, some benches are still imposing prison sentences in cases where they are unnecessary. The statistics show a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of England and Wales. Courts in Sussex imposed custodial sentences in 3.3 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011 – more often than areas such as Warwickshire (1.5 per cent) and Northumbria (1.6 per cent). The national average was 3.8 per cent.”
Magistrates’ courts in Sussex handed down 26,149 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 875 were custodial. Overall, magistrates’ courts in England and Wales reduced their use of custody by a quarter between 2001 and 2011.
The maximum sentence that 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.”
Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said, “Prison will always be the right place for the most serious and persistent offenders. But reoffending rates are unacceptably high — and are currently highest among those sentenced to short prison sentences. We are tackling this by changing the way we deal with these offenders, so there is greater supervision and rehabilitation.
“Individual sentencing decisions can only be decided by the independent judiciary as only they have the full facts of the case in front of them. The independent Sentencing Council provides comprehensive sentencing guidelines for magistrates and judges to ensure sentencing is consistent.”