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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
Call to jail fewer young offenders
Jail scene
Courts are urged to be consistent in sentencing
Courts are being urged to send fewer young offenders to prison because youth jails are close to bursting point.

The chairman of the Youth Justice Board, Lord Warner, has written to every youth court in England and Wales calling for greater use of community penalties for 15 to 17-year-olds.


Every effort is being made to make full use of the new range of community penalties available in the youth court

Harry Mawdsley, Magistrates' Association
And he says wide regional variations in sentencing policy means that there is currently "justice by geography".

Lord Warner said short three-month sentences left little time for rehabilitation while they disrupted young people's lives.

There was good evidence that community penalties were more effective, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Community sentences

More intensive surveillance and supervision programmes could be used to deal with more persistent young offenders "who need to be brought up with a jolt", he said.

"You can use tagging, voice verifications frequent visits to their homes and structured programmes in the community," he said.


This is resulting in a significant element of 'justice by geography', which is inherently unfair

Lord Warner
"These are likely to be more effective than taking them away for short periods often 50 to 100 miles away from their home areas into custody."

In the year to March, 6,600 detention and training orders were imposed on 15 to 17-year-olds, with half of the sentences often served in prison and half in the community.

Lord Warner says community programmes will save money and ease the pressure on the youth justice system, whose young offenders' institutions are currently running at 96% capacity.

Regional differences

He criticised the wide regional differences in sentencing policy.

In Wales, for example, Merthyr Tydfil handed out equal numbers of custodial and community sentences, while Pembrokeshire saw one jail term for every 42 community punishments.

Prison to community sentence ratio
Merthyr Tydfil: 1:1
Kensington and Chelsea: 1:2
Slough: 1:2
Northumberland: 1:36
Solihull: 1:27
Pembrokeshire: 1:42

"This is resulting in a significant element of "justice by geography", which is inherently unfair," he said.

There was also a rise in the number of custodial sentences for young offenders, although the number of serious offences has fallen from 25,035 (in the three months to June 2000) to 21,916 (in the three months to March this year).

Chairman of the Magistrates Association, Harry Mawdsley, said there were variations in sentencing patterns from one part of the country to another, but there were also variations in youth offending patterns.

He said the association was concerned and determined to reduce variations to a minimum.

"Every effort is being made to make full use of new penalties available in the youth court," he told Today.

"Large numbers of youngsters in custody is a result of the government's success in reducing the period between arrest and sentence from 142 days in 1997 to close to target of 71 days at present time."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Silverman
"A new sentence... may involve being electronically tagged"
The BBC's John Humphrys
speaks to Lord Warner of the Youth Justice Board, and Harry Mawdsley of the Magistrates Association
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