I well remember a phrase used more than once during my early training sessions on the bench; â€œwe are not social workersâ€. Perhaps that negative description is becoming frayed at the edges. Pressures from various Justice Secretaries aided and abetted by their secretaries both permanent and parliamentary private exhort all magistrates to seek all means possible to avoid disposing of offenders by immediate custody. This â€œdirectiveâ€ by any other terms is financially driven. Of course there are spurious statistics purporting to show that long term rehabilitation outside prison is more likely to succeed than incarceration notwithstanding the emasculation of the probation service and the questionable results from Peterborough and Doncaster.
Ten years ago magistrates courts were enabled to suspend custodial sentences where appropriate. In the year ended September 2012 magistrates made 68,647 custody orders of which 24,145 (35.17%) were suspended. Suspended Sentence Orders must be activated in whole or in part if an offender is convicted again within the period of suspension. Departure from this requirement must be explained in open court. Therefore it is interesting to read a report from Darlington Magistrates` Court where an offender with convictions within the period of two SSOs did not have her sentenced activated. Two quotes from the report make interesting if contrasting reading (my italics).
Probation officer Brenda Robertson, who prepared a pre-sentence report on Turnbull said her engagement with the probation service and a number of other agencies had been poor.
Chairwoman of bench, Ms Cunningham, chose not to activate Turnbullâ€™s two suspended sentences and increased the operational period of one from 21 months to 24 months, and the other from 12 months to 15 months.
â€œWe feel it would be unjust to send you to prison,â€ she said. â€œYou have worked with probation for a long time and you would be in prison for a very short time and with very little support.â€
Of course the usual caveat must apply insofar as only those in court are fully aware of all the details but it still IMHO makes for interesting reading.