The Government will this week spark a new war with the judiciary by stripping England and Wales's 30,000 magistrates of powers to hand out suspended jail terms, in a fresh bid to ease the prisons crisis.We really do seem to be living in a world that has gone totally mad. How else do we describe a society where the government - which is supposed to exist for the protection of the populace - will use any trick in the book to try and keep criminals out of prison, and on the streets?
The move is likely to prompt an angry reaction from magistrates who fiercely guard their sentencing powers.
It will also be interpreted as a climbdown by the government which introduced suspended sentence orders (SSOs) for summary offences - 'minor' crimes, such as common assault or driving while disqualified, which are heard in the magistrates' court - only two years ago. Under the order an offender receives a custodial punishment if they commit a further crime while the suspended sentence is running.
But the government has been alarmed by the number of times magistrates have used suspended sentences and by how many have been converted into custodial sentences for reoffenders.
My own views on claims that prisons are overcrowded have been set out here before: essentially, I will not accept that prisons are full up until there is no longer one inch of floor space in one cell in the country which does not have a convict lying, sitting, or standing on it. And I also feel that a liberal application of the noose would serve the purpose of reducing the prison population rather well.
Somewhat ironically, however, the government's latest attempt to reduce the prison population may well have the effect of increasing it, at least according to Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, who "warns" (because it is something we all fear) that magistrates could use immediate custodial sentences, if they are prevented from using suspended ones. Whether this will actually turn out to be the case is unclear (personally, from my limited experience of seeing magistrates in action, I'm surprised to learn that they ever send anyone to prison), but it is a pleasant thought.