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Howard League blog · 22 Jun 2016

Magistrates, sentencing and race

The Howard League has long argued that justice is not served by conferring the awesome power to incarcerate a citizen on magistrates. As well as the moral argument, the practical implications of short prison sentences are devastating on the individual, counter-productive and costly to the public.

Last week I had a very interesting meeting with David Lammy MP and his team to discuss his inquiry into racism and disproportionality in the criminal justice system. I am even more convinced that we need to take away from magistrates the power to imprison.

I know that there are arguments being made, in high places, that it would be administratively more efficient to increase their power to sentence to jail to a year, but I think this is deeply flawed. In fact, it would be administratively inefficient.

It would likely lead to an increase in the number of people in prison. By restricting the right to a jury trial it would deepen a sense of injustice. But, most importantly, it would lead to even more BAME people going to prison.


David Lammy made the point that there is compelling evidence that people from BAME communities have a greater tendency to plead not guilty and opt for a crown court and jury trial. It is thought that this is because they have little confidence in the ‘system’, particularly magistrates, but more confidence in juries. The proportion of people, particularly BAME, found not guilty is greater in the crown courts than magistrates courts. It follows that the combination of moving more people into the lower courts and increased punishment powers will lead to an unacceptable increase in the number of BAME people in prison.

So, I have a suggestion. Don’t do that. Take away the power to imprison from magistrates and confer on them power to work constructively to solve the problems faced by the people that appear before them.

Magistrates courts should see themselves as primarily problem-solving rather than concentrating on meting out punishments.

This approach would solve the problem.  There would be a huge incentive not to opt for a crown court jury trial that could lead to prison, but stay in the lower court where that could not happen.

This would help to reduce disproportionality, save crown court time, increase the chances of problem-solving initiatives reaching people from all communities and save public money.

Magistrates courts should see themselves as primarily problem-solving rather than concentrating on meting out punishments. Greater powers and responsibility to solve problems, heal communities and deal with crime would save us all a lot of money.

I am worried that if the lower courts take on greater responsibility and more powers for problem-solving, it could mean that only white people get this solution. Only if powers to imprison are taken away at the same time, can we be assured of justice for all.

Efficiency, justice and proportionality – what’s not to like?


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