On May 25th I posted on the issue of Sentencing Guidelines being just that; guidelines and not tramlines. I also remarked on the benefits and necessity of local court reporting by local media. Having made my point it is of course the other side of the coin when a court report fails to paint an accurate picture of the situation.
One such failure whether by a lack of understanding or observations driven by political direction is the situation underlying a suspended sentence order. Orders of this kind came into practice as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and all sentencers are fully aware that such orders can be applied only after an offence is considered so serious that neither a fine nor a community sentence can be justified and custody is the only suitable disposal. At this point the bench must consider whether there is mitigation which suggests that there is a community order which will provide the rehabilitation which will prevent future offending. Now is where the arguments become somewhat clouded; where perhaps the tail of reducing the jail population takes precedence over public safety. Former Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke was unequivocal in his belief that fewer offenders should receive custodial sentences. But returning to the processâ€¦â€¦..if such an argument can be sustained then the custody order can be suspended for up to two years and, until a few months ago, combined with a community order. That IMHO was the dog wagging part of the process. Having decided that a community order was insufficient to reflect the seriousness of the crime it was considered necessary to accompany a SSO. So if nothing else a little more logic in its now being an unnecessary accompaniment to a SSO as a result of LASPO, has been applied.
The Sunderland Echo has today reported a case which encompasses all the points to which I have so far referred. The discretion by which the bench suspended the custody order was just that; discretion. Another bench might have considered that the requirements were not met and/or that public safety overrode the offender`s individual situation. After all whatever hooch might be available in prison it`s sure to be less than an alcoholic`s regular imbibing. However until a reporter is willing or able to make a comment based on the reality of a situation is there not an argument for an organisation, HMCTS, Magistrates` Association or even CPS, to issue a rejoinder against such biased comments about what is in effect the difficult task of the sentencing balancing act?