IF YOU asked the average person on the street, they would say the country’s magistrates’ courts are not tough enough on offenders.
And two of the Fylde’s top magistrates – who hand out the sentences – say they partly agree with that opinion.
Between them, Bob Hutchinson and David Jesson have more than 30 years’ experience dealing with the Fylde coast’s criminals, and now they are trying to share their experiences with the public – and challenge misconceptions about their role.
As members of the Local Community Engagement Group, they volunteer their time to explain to adults and youngsters what they do – and why people might think they are too lenient.
Mr Hutchinson, who is chairman of the group, said: “We go to PACT (Police and Communities Together) meetings and you get almost 100 per cent of people saying the sentences we give for the crimes committed is not enough.
“But what we want to stress is, the laws are made by Parliament and we administer them. There is a set of guidelines we work with.”
His colleague Mr Jesson, chairman of the Fylde Coast bench – which covers the courts in Blackpool and Fleetwood – added: “Sometimes when you meet adults we have got to get over that preconception a lot of them have that we have total power.
“I’ve been to meetings where they want to know why I’ve not sent people to prison, so I always take my sentencing guidelines, and drop them on the table.
“I explain there are rules for you, and there are rules and laws for magistrates. We can’t just do what we feel like, we have to do it within the laws set by Parliament.”
The top sentence that can be handed down by a magistrates’ court for a summary offence – one which is not dealt with by the higher crown court – is six months’ imprisonment.
But the time the offender spends behind bars quickly begins to fall with discounts for pleading guilty and good behaviour.
Mr Jesson said: “The Criminal Justice Act 2003 was going to give magistrates a maximum of a 12-month sentence on any one item.
“But for some unknown reason, about two months before it became law, that was pulled, and we still retain only our six-month maximum sentence. But because of the way the justice system works, if they plead guilty at the first opportunity, the law says we have to give them a third off, so it becomes four months. And, provided they behave themselves in prison, once they have served half the time, they are released on licence.
“So our six-month sentence is, in fact, a two-month sentence, and that is really not enough time for the prison service to get to grips with some of their problems.”
But despite the issues with government-controlled sentencing guidelines, Mr Hutchinson said he became a magistrate nine years ago to make a difference to the local community – something he firmly believes he is doing.
The former managing director said: “When I was ready for retiring, I felt I had not done a great lot, or put anything back.
“I’ve always had an interest in the law, and I thought if I’m going to put something back into the community, it needs to be something I’m interested in, and I still enjoy it now. I think it’s a worthwhile way of helping this town.
“One of the things we’re here for is to protect the public from people who are criminals. When someone comes in front of us for a bail application, we listen to a lot of things – but one of the main things is, is that person a danger to the public?”
It is these issues the magistrates – who are not legally-trained but have a legal adviser – discuss when they head out in the community to speak to everyone from school groups and scouts to Rotary clubs and PACT meetings.
Mr Hutchinson said: “The group is made up of volunteer magistrates from Blackpool and Fleetwood, which is the Fylde bench.
“On the whole of the bench there are about 225 magistrates, and the group has about 15 active members from those 225.
“Our job is to get the message out. Most people in this area don’t really understand how summary justice works, why it works the way it does and how, and why, we do what we do.
“The youngest people we address are in year six at primary school, and we deal with them in a completely different way to adults.
“We do an interactive session with them so they are interested, and explain how justice works in the area, and why you shouldn’t get involved in crime.
“Some of the things which will hit home with them are about not being able to go on holiday to America, higher insurance premiums and the fact you will be bottom of the list for a job if you need a Criminal Records Bureau check.
“Our aim is to prevent offending.”
To book a talk from the group, call Jennifer Mitchell on (01253) 757058.