What sort of people are being attracted to the bench?

What sort of people are being attracted to the bench?


Increased sentencing powers should not be seen as a morale-boosting tool for the magistracy, writes Jonathan Black

Just as I was thinking about going to sleep last night, news broke on my Twitter feed of a fatal stabbing, and two others serious injuries, at HMP Pentonville. Alarming as it was, it came as no surprise.

A BBC news item from last week featured the frequency with which drones were used to pass contraband into prison; we know of deteriorating conditions in the Victorian institution that holds 1,200 adults; and at the Prison Governors Association conference last week it was said that 'safety standards in prisons had declined since the introduction of 'benchmarking' '“ a programme to drive down costs by reducing staffing and simplifying the prison regime'. Add to that the ingredient of prison overcrowding and you have the recipe for these types of incident.

Prison isn't working and privatisation will only incentivise the need to ensure bodies in bunks. No doubt we will be told that there will be a review and an enquiry with recommendations that prisoners be issued with iPads to contain them and allow access to their digitalised case papers. That is, of course, until the Daily Mail, fired up by a popularity-seeking home secretary, complains about prisoners being allowed such luxuries.

While morale in the prison service and among prisoners is low, a separate news story broke within an hour, causing me even greater alarm. Morale among magistrates was low, said the Guardian. How is it proposed that they boost it? By ensuring that they don't have to work within a creaking criminal justice system where cases are not properly prepared? Ensuring that defendants are represented and interpreters turn up? Perhaps reviewing the court closure programmes so local justice can be delivered after all?

No, it is proposed that in order to boost morale, magistrates should be given increased sentencing powers by activating section 154 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This will increase sentencing powers to up to 15 months' imprisonment for two or more offences or 12 months' imprisonment for a single offence. The major concern for those working within the justice system is that if increased powers of imprisonment are seen as a morale booster, then what sort of people are being attracted to the bench?

There is far more to being a justice of the peace than imposing custodial terms, and anyone who sees that as their role need to be filtered out of the selection process. We live in worrying times when increased sentencing powers are seen as a morale-boosting tool to address the recruitment crisis, especially at a time when the prisons service is in chaos and the violence within the custodial estate is leading to the sorts of fatalities we read about last night.

Jonathan Black is immediate past president of the LCCSA and a partner at BSB Solicitors