The Howard League must have been rather pleased with itself at the coverage their latest â€œshockâ€ news brought to local press country wide; headlined as a post code sentencing lottery a term first used to describe activities within the NHS. 3.9% of all those sentenced at magistrates` courts in the year ended September 2012 received an immediate custodial sentence. The numbers have been reducing over the last decade. The Howard League would wish that figure to be zero. It is a campaigning organisation pure and simple. It has its own agenda. Two conclusions arise from their stated goal; such offences for which offenders are liable to custody in magistrates` courts should be removed to the crown court or the sentencing guidelines should preclude custody for those offences.
Whether or not there is a definitive answer as to which disposal has the â€œbetterâ€ outcomes....so called justice in the community or prison.....it is rather uncomfortable to attempt to ride two horses simultaneously. The slight variations in custodial disposals which have been joy for the headline writers are just that...â€slightâ€. The mean figure is 3.8% as shown in the table. Remove the top and bottom four figures and the average is 3.9% As a basis of argument this non statistician considers this spurious exercise just another way to grab a headline. It has no meaningful significance.
Section 152(2) Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides:
â€œThe court must not pass a custodial sentence unless it is of the opinion that the offence, or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence.â€
Humans are individual creatures with long and varied individual histories and experience which as J.P.s they bring to the bench. How narrow should Howard League focus its criticism? Should every individual bench decision be tabulated to separate and control the â€œhangers and floggersâ€ from the â€œdo goodersâ€? That of course is a rhetorical question. Quite simply the magistracy is being pulled and pushed, buffeted from all sides and funnelled into a system of ever increasing control from the vested interests which pull the financial and political strings of justice. It is as well that the fumbling incompetency of the previous chairman of the Magistrates` Association has been replaced with the provincial tones of John Fassenfelt who is very capable of putting magistrates` opinions into the cauldron of public opinion on the basis of our being representatives of the communities in which we dispense justice and that that justice includes immediate custody when the offence is so serious that only custody is appropriate whether in Cumbria or Caernarvon.