Now that I am retired having been many years a magistrate with a long awareness of the declining freedoms enjoyed by the ordinary citizen and a corresponding fear of the big brother state`s ever increasing encroachment on civil liberties I hope that my personal observations within these general parameters will be of interest to those with an open mind. Having been blogging with this title for many years against the rules of the Ministry of Justice my new found freedom should allow me to be less inhibited in these observations.
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Friday, 4 October 2013
AFTER DINOSAUR J.P.s; THE DAILY MAIL: HEAVEN PRESERVE US!
Yesterday I posted on publicly reported remarks made by a J.P. at his retirement. I have no doubts that his opinions are shared by some if not many of my colleagues. My own position is quite clear; there is a direction from the very top levels of government to limit the numbers of offenders being sent to immediate custody. Of course nowhere will there be a direct quote from those responsible. But the evidence is as clear as daylight. On 27/09/2013 the prison population was 84,430; operational capacity is 87,788. Simple arithmetic shows that the prisons are running at over 96% capacity. In NHS hospitals in England there are 19,710 beds available for overnight occupation from a total of 136,471; i.e. hospitals which are maligned for the failure to provide sufficient beds are running at 85% capacity. Sentencing Guidelines provide further evidence that the hurdles especially to imprisonment for lower level offending have been raised. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the offences of driving whilst disqualified, assault and theft (shoplifting).
Our legislators are abysmally ignorant of the realities. Rehmen Chishti MP is the sponsor of his forthcoming Drink Driving (Repeat Offenders ) Bill which he hopes will curb this anti social and dangerous behaviour. His proposal is that the current maximum sentence of six months should be increased to two years. Considering that the offence is summary only that would mean it should become "either way" and be tried before judge and jury thus increasing time and cost. Perhaps Mr Chishti is unaware of some facts. When I was appointed in the `90s it was not uncommon for a second offence of drink driving to be punished by a custodial sentence up to six months. That now rarely happens owing to this and the previous government`s desire to reduce prison numbers. It is only after a third similar offence or an extremely aggravated second offence that prison is considered appropriate and often the sentence is suspended.
Assault on the streets is cited as a very common fear especially by younger and paradoxically older members of the population. Around half a million summary non motoring offences are dealt with annually at magistrates` courts. It is almost impossible for this non research fellow to ascertain the rate of immediate imprisonment for assault by beating. Anecdotally I would suggest that the rate is considerably less than it was twenty years ago. The ubiquitous “Suspended Sentence Order” appears so often now on pre sentence reports that I wonder if the writers understand that the custody threshold must be passed before consideration of suspending such a disposal is in the public interest. The SSO itself to have any meaning must have the default imposition of immediate custody applied following a further conviction within the period of suspension. All too often that does not happen and IMHO that brings the law into disrepute. The following case was heard by South Durham Magistrates sitting at Darlington Magistrates' Court: comment without full knowledge is dangerous but examples such as this are commonplace. What might be the view of the citizen of Darlington reading this short report?
“SENTENCE BREACH: Abigail Rae Noble, 21, of Middleton Street, Darlington, admitted two breaches of a suspended sentence order imposed by Teesside Crown Court. As punishment, magistrates imposed an eight week curfew, valid between 7pm and 7am each night, and ordered her to continue with community requirements of the original order”.
Many official statistics consider that 70% of acquisitive crime is due to addicts, whether of drugs and/or alcohol, seeking funds to feed their habit(s). Shoplifting by any other term is often their preferred route to raising cash. Sentencing Guidelines allow immediate imprisonment for such offenders even when the sum in question is only a few pounds. Magistrates have a public protection duty in addition to consideration of the criminal`s circumstances. All too often I feel that that consideration is overlooked.
A bench at Warwickshire Justice Centre chose not to impose prison terms on two individuals with what might be regarded as a propensity for thieving. I can say that having sat on many similar cases I feel that that obligation for public protection is now not a consideration for many of my colleagues.
Perhaps when dinosaurs like me have retired the Howard League and its supporters will succeed in banning all prison sentences of less than six months. Heaven preserve us all if we have to rely on the Daily Mail to plead our cause.