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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 10:35 GMT
Magistrates raise 'young thugs' fears
Police officers
Police have to chase young "thugs", say magistrates
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Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

The lack of remand facilities for young offenders is leaving "thugs" free to commit more street crime, says the chairman of the Magistrates Association.

In an interview with BBC News Online, Harry Mawdsley said courts' credibility in dealing with criminals under 15 was being put at risk.

His comments come after cabinet ministers and police chiefs discussed how to tackle the rising tide of street crime - particularly focusing on youngsters.

Increasing magistrates' broad sentencing powers would improve the system quite dramatically

Harry Mawdsley

Mr Mawdsley also warned that any move to strip magistrates of powers to deliver short prison sentences would undermine community punishments.

Magistrates have come under fire this week over the case of two teenage brothers linked to almost 100 crimes who each escaped custody.

Major problem

Mr Mawdsley said tackling young offending generally was a major difficulty for magistrates around the country.

"The major problem, as the home secretary has indicated, is the lack of remand facilities," he said.

There are facilities for youths over 16 but younger offenders are dealt with by local councils.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
Blunkett has made tackling street crime a priority
Mr Mawdsley said: "They come before the court and because there are no remand facilities, they are remanded to the care of the local authority.

"That essentially means they are sent home."

One way around that problem is to tag young offenders electronically, but if they cut off the tag or went missing, there was still nowhere for them to be kept in custody, he said.

"It is a crucial problem at the moment particularly, not only for us but for the police.

"They spend enormous resources and time chasing these young thugs ... only to find that in a couple of hours they are back on the streets doing exactly the same thing.

"Somehow there needs to be some intervention stage whereby either the worst of the offenders are held in some kind of remand facility, or at least they are kept out of the community."

Mr Mawdsley stressed he was not advocating "instant justice" but added: "There is a kind of credibility problem with young offenders."

He acknowledged there were major questions about whether young people should be held on remand.

Confidence worries

The government had played its part in cutting the time between the arrest of young offenders and getting them to court, said Mr Mawdsley.

But new measures were needed to ensure public confidence that the criminal justice system was working, he added.

The Prison Governors Association this month called for magistrates to lose their powers to impose short prison sentences.

An electronic tag
Tagging is seen as a possible alternative to prison
The association's Mr Newell said: "Magistrates now have a wide range of community penalties available to them but they insist on imposing inappropriate prison sentences.

"We say these powers should now be taken away from them."

Magistrates are allowed to impose prison sentences of up to six months or less for adults and up to two years for under-16s.

Mr Mawdsley said those powers were only used as a last resort, usually when offenders had failed to comply with other sentences.

'Prison fallback needed'

He spelt out the risks of magistrates losing the prison alternative.

"If that was done that would simply undermine the whole of the community process," he continued.

"What is crucial for the enforcement of community penalties is the fallback that the custodial sentence is there if necessary."

Mr Mawdsley also wants magistrates to be able to sentence offenders to a year or two years in prison.

"Increasing magistrates' broad sentencing powers would improve the system quite dramatically," he said.

"It would mean less people would be sent to the crown court, justice would be dealt with much more efficiently and would take the whole factor of delay out of the system."

Such delays and expense were behind government attempts curtail the right of some defendants to choose jury trial - although those plans are now thought to have been dropped.

The Magistrates Association backed those plans but Mr Mawdsley said there were other ways of achieving the same core aim.

Justice overhaul

More plea bargaining in magistrates court and said allowing defendants' mitigation to be heard alongside prosecutor's cases would mean fewer cases were sent to crown courts.

The government is currently considering Lord Justice Auld's proposal for a new tier of courts.

District judges would sit with two magistrates in those courts to deal with cases where defendants can currently choose where they want their case heard.

Mr Mawdsley said there was a "remarkable" consensus against that idea, which would prove expensive.

Whether ministers come to the same verdict on that plan - and other ideas for overhauling the criminal justice system - will become clear when the government publishes a white paper later this year.

See also:

20 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Crime forum pledges tough action
20 Mar 02 | England
Brothers in crime back on streets
24 Feb 02 | Panorama
Tackling the Tearaways
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