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Magistrates hit back at Clarke’s criticism of short sentences

6 July 2010

John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, has hit back at justice secretary Ken Clarke, who attacked the use of short sentences as he launched the coalition government’s radical plans to reshape criminal justice.

Clarke said “no proper thought” had been given to whether prison was the best way to protect the public against crime and “intelligent sentencing” would give people better value for money.

“Just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England,” he said.

However, Thornhill said many offenders who received short sentences had persistently failed to comply with community service orders and left magistrates with “no alternative” but to impose a custodial sentence.

He said the number of short-term sentences had fallen by 15 per cent in the last 18 months, according to MoJ figures, and where there were “viable alternatives” magistrates used them.

Thornhill said a report by the National Audit Office had shown some criminals given community sentences were routinely allowed to skip community work because probation officers did not properly enforce the rules.

“Magistrates and the public must have confidence that community penalties are widely available, managed effectively and rigorously enforced,” he said.

Thornhill called on the new government to reinstate funding for the Intensive Alternative to Custody programme, which is designed to divert people from short-term custody. Its funding is due to be removed in March 2011.

A spokesman for the MoJ said the pilots were being evaluated and a decision would be made in “due course”.

Rodney Warren, director of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, asked: “Is this a shift in social policy thinking or simply a question of moving the deck chairs on the basis of fiscal constraint?”

Warren said it was unclear why we had such a large proportion of our population in prison. “Is it because of the number of offences or because of sentencing policies? In the US the percentage in prison is higher, but the crime rate is falling even faster.”

Warren said it was “excellent” that Clarke was attempting to take an overview of the criminal justice system, rather than pursuing lots of individual initiatives, but it was “extraordinarily disappointing” that he was resorting to the same old rhetoric on legal aid.

Dominic Williamson, chief executive of Revolving Doors, an agency which aims to improve services for persistent offenders, said he had “nothing against” Clarke’s proposal that charities should be paid by results when helping former offenders but it was “very, very early days”.

Clarke said the new approach would give voluntary and private sector organisations “clear financial incentives” to keep offenders away from crime.

“And success would be measured perhaps by whether they find and keep a job, find housing and so on – whether they become functioning members of society – but above all by whether they are not reconvicted within the first few years of leaving prison.”

Williamson said: “At a time of diminishing funding, it is something we have to think about.”

He said the “social impact bonds” pilot at Peterborough prison, referred to by the justice secretary, would allow charitable trusts to invest in a project operated by the St Giles Trust. The social investors would only get paid by the Ministry of Justice if they got a specific result.

However, Williamson said the pilot project, the only one in the country, would run for six years after its launch next month.

He said that magistrates knew that offenders with alcohol or drug abuse problems were unlikely to complete community sentences. “Their only chance of treatment is to send them to prison,” he added.

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