From 4th August magistrates throughout England and Wales will be obliged when sentencing to follow a rule book produced by the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Many years of judicial discretion and common law precedents are to be jettisoned in favour of a handbook produced behind closed doors. Its offensively condescending style is likely to annoy experienced magistrates who know what sentence will be acceptable to the public in a particular town or district.
Some of the guidelines are surprising. Possession of a bladed article is lumped together with possession of an offensive weapon, although in law the offensive weapon is clearly a more serious offence. Fewer burglars will go to prison. Only criminal damage to a value of over £5000 attracts a custodial sentence and people who steal their neighbours' cars can now expect only a Mickey Mouse fine.
On the other hand, failing to turn up at court is now to be treated severely. Many offenders lead chaotic lives. They have problems with drugs or alcohol, their accommodation is not secure, they lose their charge sheets and cannot remember court dates. Now, if their solicitor will have to advise them that they are at real risk of a prison sentence, they are not likely to surrender to the police. What planet, one wonders, do those who wrote these guidelines inhabit?The introduction of these prescriptive guidelines is not, however, surprising. The Sentencing Guidelines Council was set up by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to frame guidelines to promote consistency. In December 2007 Lord Carter, having produced a detailed report on criminal legal aid (which was then expertly and savagely dissected by a House of Commons committee) published his review of prisons "Securing the Future". He advocated the establishment of a Sentencing Commission whose role would be to prescribe a sentencing framework which would reduce the prison population, provide a means of predicting any increase and match the custodial sentences imposed to the prison places available.