Magistrates take hard line in criminal cases

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Magistrates in Lancashire are almost twice as likely to send someone to prison as courts in other parts of the country, according to figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

New research by the charity shows that people who have been convicted of a crime in England and Wales face a postcode lottery when they are sentenced.

A growing number of magistrates’ benches are making good use of community sentences which reduce crime and help people to turn their lives around.

However, some benches are still imposing prison sentences in cases where they are unnecessary.

The statistics show a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of England and Wales. Courts in Lancashire imposed custodial sentences in 2.8 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011 – more often than areas such as Warwickshire (1.5 per cent) and Northumbria (1.6 per cent).

The national average was 3.8 per cent.

Magistrates’ courts in Lancashire handed down 38,433 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 1,094 were custodial. Overall, magistrates’ courts in England and Wales reduced their use of custody by a quarter between 2001 and 2011.

The maximum sentence that a magistrates’ court can impose is a six-month prison term, or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence.

The statistics have been published as Ministry of Justice figures show that short-term prison sentences are failing to cut crime.