Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

Memorandum submitted by Mr. Harry Smith Taylor JP (LA 67)

I am writing to you in my capacity as a private individual.  You will also note from below that I am a Justice of the Peace.

I broadly support the Bill and its ethos and wondered whether there was opportunity to do more to increase the effective punishment whilst reducing sending offenders to prison.  The Magistrates Sentencing Guidelines detail a list of available options whch is often not practicable or do not offer the broadest range of options for sentencing.  I come to these issues as a young and new magistrate.

I make a few brief points:
1.  There is an over burden placed on the Courts to obtain reports, particularly probation, on offenders without proceeding to sentencing.  Some reports are mandatory.  This creates a large number adjournments and new hearings for sentencing.  I think the scope of these reports needs to be reduced to a minimum and more emphasis needs to be placed on the Defendant and Defence Counsel, as an officer of the Court, to establish the true extent of the Defendant's background as opposed to the Court accepting the cost in disruption to hearings, sentences, adjournments and re-consideration.  The duty of the defence counsel to the court may need clarifying along the lines of the duty to the court owed by an expert witness.  I believe that this would reduce the amount of court time wasted in finding out more of the offender's background.  This is a primary cause of delay in proceeding swiftly with justice.  It is costly and needs to be brought under control with the public purse in mind.

2.  I take the view that magistrates should be able to sentence offenders to prison for up to 2 years for an offence with the policy objective of reducing cases which need to be sent to the Crown Court and all the cost that this entails.  The range of offences which are triable summarily only could be increased to achieve the same objective.  As magistrates discharge community justice amongst its peers then the need to increase the diversity and representation of the community is vital.  The move in recent years to reduce the number of benches and increase district judges would be on reflection a way to reduce the cost on the public purse should the trend be reverted.  A community justice target would be helpful in deciding how many benches a court should deploy.

3.  Society would benefit from combined sentencing; a period in prison, unpaid work requirement, curfew and prohibitions within one sentence in that the offender experiences a range of punishments within one sentence so that it is the equivalent of a prison sentence by virtue of the tougher restrictions on their liberty.  Tougher combinations of punishments for longer periods of time would in the end act as a greater deterrent and give time to bring about rehabilitation in the community.

4.  There are a large number of matters that come before magistrate courts which would benefit from Magistrates having the power after conviction or when pleading guilty, or before if it is put to the Defendant as an option, to reduce minor charges to cautions with a fixed penalty for the expedience of justice and immediate disposal from the Court system.

5.  In relation to community orders, the increase to 16 hours curfew is an effective policy decision.  It does not require the co-operation of the probation service.  I think that the curfew should also last up to 2 years.  You see so many repeat offenders going through the system that the current limit is not a deterrent.  In addition to the curfew, the power to make specific prohibition orders mandatory such as prohibition of alcohol, drugs, anti-social behaviour should be routine.  If a defendant can show the court that they have found suitable connection with training or employment and it is found to be the case, then the court can reduce the onerous conditions of an order as a way of meeting the defendant's efforts to make changes to their offending and lifestyle.

6.  There is a significant problem in London with tourist criminals which Magistrates find difficult to apply the same standard of sentencing as those who do not travel to the UK to commit crime.  In the USA visas are denied upon entry to the country with a criminal conviction including prison, community work and fines acquired as punishment.  There is an opportunity to do two things in this bill.  Any foreign national who commits an offence in this country, the courts should be compelled to order that they are automatically deported.  The bill should also consider the prevention of aliens entering the country if the declare a criminal offence or make it an automatic deportation if it is discovered during their stay that an offence has been committed or a criminal record was not disclosed. 

7.  You will be aware that assessments of fines handed down to Defendants are based on their means.  There is no verification of the means submitted on the means form to the Court unlike say claims for welfare benefits, tax credits and grants from the public purse.  There is an opportunity in the bill for a Defendant to be required by law to bring evidence of their means to Court for verification.  There are many cases were it can be suspected that the self assessment means form is understated but there is no way of effectively challenging the information.  If you consider the matter in respect of the same defendant applying for legal aid in pursuant of their defence to a charge, then they would be required to provide evidence of their means before such an application can considered.  Again, rather than a duty or cost imposed on a court, the defendant or defence counsel could have a duty to provide evidence or confirmation of the Defendant's means.  I have never seen a case were a defendant brings a payslip, income support letter or jobseeker allowance entitlement to court.  Assessment of fines is purely undertaken on the trust of the Defendant.

8.  The public would have more confidence in sentencing if certain assumptions were automatic such exclusion order or prohibition orders following the nature of a crime.  Many such elements already exist for sex offenders but the extent of repeated antisocial behaviour and its effect on local communities does not have the same policy priority yet it is clear that the extent of the problems on communities in complex and far reaching.  More needs to be done in the sentencing of prevention orders and banning orders as the norm rather than the exception.  This would require a power to broaden the type and nature of bans imposed on a defendant.  It is often the case that Defendants' do not find community punishments demanding enough to prevent re-offending or that the consequences of a breach are insignificant. 

9.  Lastly, it strikes me that if policy makes punishment more onerous for individuals and it in turn does start to see a response from the offender because the community punishment is more or less as restricting to liberty equating to a stay in prison, then it is right that the offender having achieved an element of transformation that should be rewarded with a gradual reduction in severity of the sentencing as time proceeds.

September 2011

Prepared 7th September 2011