The following is taken from Peter Hitchen’s column in the Mail on Sunday and was pointed out to me by Bernard. Well worth a read.
‘I joined the Magisterial service in the mid-1960s, qualified as a solicitor through night school and a year at law school whilst in service, spent most of my working life at a busy Magistrates’ Court where I acted a clerk to the Court in excess of 8000 sittings . I retired a few years ago but continued working on an agency basis at different courts due to qualified staff shortages for another two years or so. I feel well qualified to comment on the judicial process and especially Magistrates’ Courts.’In 1964 I remember that the offence of using a vehicle without insurance carried a possibility of a prison sentence.
‘Driving whilst disqualified could be tried either by the Magistrates or by Crown Court (Quarter Sessions back then) and invariably resulted in a custodial sentence. Compare those two offences to now when its usually 6 penalty points and a derisory fine because such offenders rarely have sufficient means.’Burglars were always, OK nearly always, imprisoned. A burglary committed during the hours of darkness could NOT be heard by the Magistrates, it had to go ‘upstairs’. So you can imagine the kind of sentences handed down.’Cautions? In 1964 never heard of them, except perhaps the unofficial ones that right minded traffic officers used to administer.’Magistrates had Licensing Committees that kept a strict control on outlets for alcohol and gambling.’Women were forced by the benefit agency of the day to take proceedings in our court against absent fathers before they would be allowed benefit. The Courts enforced payment by such fathers rigorously and most men paid perhaps because of the real threat of imprisonment for those who didn’t.
‘Those are just a few random memories, but what does stand out is that Magistrates were usually sensible people and properly advised by a clerk worked well in balancing the protection of the public, punishment of the offender and sympathy where common sense dictated. Of course there was always a right of appeal
‘Gradually however, motivated by economics I’m sure, Magistrates’ hands became tied. Precedent from higher Courts, usually restricting imprisonment, became commonplace and then eventually the biggest insult to the Magistracy in living memory, the Sentencing Guidelines Council!!!!! Virtually ever offence has had its ‘tariff’ reduced and reduced over the years the Council has reigned over sentencing in this country, and virtually every Magistrate is utterly and completely frustrated, because they sit week in week out and see exactly what goes on in our society and in our Courts and they are powerless, unable to call a halt to the obscene leniency of sentences.
‘Would I be wrong in thinking that if any political party were to take a real tough stance on criminality (not parking offences and people driving at 32 in a 30) then their votes wouldn’t even need to be counted, weighed perhaps, but not counted. Im talking here of harsh prison regimes, no computers or playstations etc. Five years inside meaning five years served in a bleak environment to which no one would wish a return. Ok, at the end of the sentence I would offer the opportunity to stay in a kind of probation led half way house where meaningful rehabilitation could take place, but only AFTER completing the sentence. I could go on and argue the case for capital and corporal punishment, but I fear things are too far gone for those sanctions to be reconsidered , although again I suspect a referendum would provide some interesting results. Having said that of course I realise that politicians no longer represent the views of those who elected them.’