Groups clash over sentencing

A CONTROVERSIAL report by the national probation officers' group recommending the restriction of magistrates' sentencing powers has been undermined after chief probation officers described it as “untenable”.

The Association of Chief Officers of Probation (Acop) has backed the Magistrates Association in rebutting a report by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), the trade union of probation officers, which said sentencing was haphazard and inconsistent despite three sets of guidelines issued since 1989.

The report found a guilty verdict was seven times more likely to lead to a jail sentence in Chesterfield than in Wakefield. And 37.3 per cent of those convicted for theft in Clerkenwell got prison sentences compared to 0.7 per cent in Swindon.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, concluded that “sentencing remained a geographical lottery”.

He said: “There is an urgent need to review the feasibility of a sentencing council and of restricting the powers of magistrates to imprison.”

But the Magistrates Association and Acop hit back, saying that the results failed to take into account the circumstances of each case.

John Hicks, vice-chair of Acop, said Napo was wrong to draw the conclusions it did from the survey. “The probation service's leadership does not share the trade union's view that magistrates' powers should be changed,” he said. “The figures alone give no insight as to why there are regional variations and simply saying it is a problem with magistrates not following guidelines is not tenable.”

A Magistrates Association spokeswoman said: “The circumstances of each offence and each offender are different and must be given full weight.”

The association is currently revising its guidelines on consistency in sentencing and a new set will be available in spring next year.