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22 April 2013, 04:00
If you commit a crime in Norfolk or Suffolk, you're twice as likely to be sent to prison compared to other parts of the country.
Magistrates in Norfolk and Suffolk are more than twice as likely to send someone to prison as courts in other parts of the country, figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal today (22 April).
New research by the charity shows that people who have been convicted of a crime in England and Wales face a postcode lottery when they are sentenced.
The statistics show a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of England and Wales.
Courts in Norfolk imposed custodial sentences in 3.8 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011. In Suffolk courts imposed custodial sentences in 3.6 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011 - more often than areas such as Warwickshire (1.5 per cent) and Northumbria (1.6 per cent). The national average was 3.8 per cent.
Magistrates’ courts in Norfolk handed down 14,928 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 573 were custodial.
Magistrates’ courts in Suffolk handed down 14,589 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 519 were custodial.
Overall, magistrates’ courts in England and Wales reduced their use of custody by a quarter between 2001 and 2011.
The maximum sentence that a magistrates’ court can impose is a six-month prison term, or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence.
Proportion of defendants dealt with by magistrates’ courts in Norfolk who received immediate custodial sentences
Proportion of defendants dealt with by magistrates’ courts in Suffolk who received immediate custodial sentences
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “It is pleasing to see that magistrates’ courts are sending fewer people to prison overall than they have in the past. However, one cannot ignore the striking disparity in sentencing trends between different criminal justice areas.
“A short-term prison sentence is a catastrophe for everyone. It does not help change the life of the person sentenced – indeed, it is likely to compound issues such as drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend. It costs the taxpayer a fortune and it does nothing to help victims, who get no recompense or easing of trauma.
“A court which imposes short prison sentences increases the likelihood of local people becoming victims of crime, because the failure rate is so high.
“Community sentences are much cheaper than custody and they deliver better results. They not only address a person’s offending, but allow them to access other services they need, such as help with drink, drugs or mental health problems.”
The statistics have been published as Ministry of Justice figures show that short-term prison sentences are failing to cut crime. Only 36 per cent of adults who began community orders between April 2010 and March 2011 went on to reoffend within a year. This compares with 58 per cent of adults who completed a prison sentence of 12 months or less during the same period.
A survey, conducted by the Howard League and the Prison Governors’ Association, found that many prisoners preferred a short-term prison sentence to a community sentence because they were easier to complete. Others considered community sentences to be a greater punishment than prison.
The country’s best community sentencing programmes are recognised by the Howard League’s annual Community Programmes Awards, a competition which began in 2005.