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, 21 March 2014

SUSPENDED SENTENCES AND PUBLIC PROTECTION



When sitting with colleagues recently appointed I occasionally remind them that we have a duty of public protection ensconced within the formulaic information overload that they are doing their best to absorb.  It is a function that is rarely if ever mentioned in any training course and one with which  most new colleagues can immediately feel comfortable as they are faced for the first or second occasion when the custody threshold has been breached.  For many the realisation that their decision means that a fellow citizen`s  liberty is being taken from them can be a sobering  moment.  Such decisions and the structured approach employed to achieve them are perhaps most significant when it comes to deciding if a custodial sentence can or should  be suspended.  The pressures on so doing are enormous.  At all levels from Secretaries of State to L/As via PSRs and trainers,  the lower courts in particular  are being “asked” to  employ some form of rehabilitative requirement and to eschew immediate custody.  The increased use of suspended sentences can be gauged from the table below.

For the year ended March 2013 figures for Adults(21 and over)  sentenced at Magistrates` Courts are alongside similar figures for year ended March 2003 in ( ) and 2006 which was the first year in which new legislation enlarged the availability of suspending custodial sentences:-

                                                                                                         


Number sentenced
166,088
(178,450)
158,644










                                                     
Number given immediate custody
27,719
(29,691)
25,596










Number given fines
44,279
(58,597)
43,583










Number given community sentences
39,916
(47,284)
45,602










Number given suspended sentences
10,843
(473)
4,621










    

                                    
                                                                  
                                                                      

In day to day practice the decision on whether or not to suspend is down to individual judgement of the members of the sentencing bench. An interesting example which perhaps encapsulates the process would have taken place this week at Hereford Magistrates` Court where an offender convicted of assault [in an apparent domestic violence context]  last month and sentenced to five months custody suspended was convicted this week of drink driving; the  fourth time  he had been convicted of a drink drive  related offence since 1996.  His suspended sentence was not activated because, according to his lawyer, “the drink driving offence coming so soon after the community order had been issued, work with the probation service “had not had time to bite”. 

Colleagues and others and  this blogger might have their own opinions but of course without actually being in court the full circumstances remain unknown.  My question is quite simple; was public protection considered as part of the structured approach to the decision?

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