Tougher community sentences instead of jail, urges top judge

Frances Gibb


Originally published in The Times


The country’s most senior judge has called for fewer offenders to be jailed. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said that the prison population, more than 85,000 in England and Wales, was “very, very high”. There are concerns, he told MPs, that it could rise further.


The lord chief justice said that much more could be done to explore keeping some offenders out of jail, including “very tough” non- custodial penalties.


He told the Commons justice select committee: “I’m not sure that at the end of the day we can’t dispose of more by really tough, and I do mean tough, community penalties.”


Overcrowded prisons are suffering rising violence, riots and disturbances as well as self-inflicted deaths and self-harm.


Last week Michael Gove, the former lord chancellor and justice secretary, said that his successor, Liz Truss, should release 500 prisoners serving sentences for public protection who had outstayed their minimum jail terms.


He called for the number of inmates to be cut, sentences reduced and those who had shown a commitment to change to be let out less than half way through their sentences.


The prison population has more than doubled in the past 20 years.


Lord Thomas also backed greater use of problem-solving courts, which send offenders for treatment. They have Ms Truss’s backing but are not thought to be a priority. He said: “I know she has quite a number of difficult issues, particularly the reform of prisons. But I know from discussions with her that [non-custodial] options . . . are very high on her thinking.”


An “awful lot” could be done to avoid jailing certain offenders, Lord Thomas said, provided orders were properly carried out by probation and rehabilitation companies.


There was also value, he said, in bringing offenders back before the same judge to monitor progress, a feature of problem-solving courts.


Lord Thomas said that there should be an experiment in doubling magistrates’ sentencing powers to 12 months, and that magistrates’ courts should be better integrated with crown courts. That might ensure that the right sentences were imposed and avoid any “bulge” in prison numbers resulting from higher sentencing powers.


“I think a controlled experiment is what we should embark on,” he said.


Malcolm Richardson, national chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, welcomed the suggestions.


“Now is the time to allow magistrates to contribute even more to the administration of justice in our courts,” he said.


Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, also supported trying greater sentencing powers for magistrates and said the evidence for problem-solving courts was compelling.


Lord Thomas also warned that 30 to 40 extra High Court judges would have to be recruited to meet demand over the next few years. He outlined the extent of the recruitment shortfall, which has been exacerbated by cuts in judges’ pensions and pay, and said “quite a big recruitment exercise” would have to be undertaken.


There were concerns that similar problems were affecting the circuit bench, which is composed of crown court judges, he added.