CRIMINALS in northeastern England can expect the lightest sentences from magistrates for offences including common assault, theft and drink driving, according to an analysis of court statistics.
Offenders in Sunderland, facing one of the most lenient benches in the country, are more than twice as likely to be given an absolute or conditional discharge as the national average. Magistrates there discharged 36.4% of cases, compared with 12.7% in Leeds and just 9.2% in Birmingham.
The figures will intensify the debate over inconsistent sentencing. Earlier this month the most lenient circuit judges in the country were identified, prompting the Home Office to indicate that serious offenders would serve longer sentences.
Robert Whelan, deputy director of the think tank Civitas, accused lenient magistrates of encouraging criminality. ?Magistrates in the northeast need to be sending more people to prison. By letting offenders off lightly, they are fostering a culture of crime,? he said.
The latest Home Office figures, which cover more than 280 magistrates? courts in England and Wales, show that in 2004 the Tyneside region was home to four of the top 10 most lenient benches.
In Houghton-le-Spring, a former mining town five miles from Sunderland, offenders were discharged in 35.4% of cases. In North Tyneside the figure was 31.1% and in Newcastle upon Tyne district it was 31%.
John Scott, deputy chairman of the bench at Sunderland magistrates? court, was surprised by figures that showed more than half of those sentenced by his court for criminal damage were discharged, the figure for those convicted of common assault was 43%.
?I think we are a very fair court, we don?t suffer fools gladly,? said Scott. ?Since 2004 a lot has happened, we now make regular use of Asbos (antisocial behaviour orders) and drug treatment orders.?
Children?s charities criticised the ?lenient? treatment of a drunk woman who took her premature baby, still connected to an oxygen bottle, into a pub. She was given a one-year conditional discharge by North Tyneside magistrates and ordered to pay ?43 costs.
Newcastle magistrates were also criticised for freeing a thief with 51 previous convictions. William Armstrong, 31, was given a conditional discharge in 2004 for a burglary committed just a day after being sentenced for theft. Superintendent John Graham of Northumbria police, who has since retired, called for a district judge to oversee cases involving prolific offenders.
Christine Tweedie, chairwoman of the Newcastle bench, said: ?I?m absolutely at a loss to explain these figures. I?m confident that this bench takes a consistent and measured approach.?
William Forrest, chairman of North Tyneside magistrates, suggested the high number of discharges might be explained by the area?s economic deprivation. ?The area that we cover has a lot of people on benefits who may be unable to pay fines, which we have to take into account,? he said.
Martin Callanan, the Conservative MEP for the North East region, said magistrates responsible for lenient sentences should be replaced. ?It seems totally out of line with what the public are demanding,? he said.
The proportion of criminals sentenced to immediate custody in Newcastle is 7.2%, one of the lowest rates in the country. By contrast, Horseferry Road magistrates in central London are among the strictest. They sentenced 26% of offenders to immediate custody.
Hillingdon in west London has the toughest magistrates. A total of 32% of all offenders were jailed immediately, more than twice the national average.
Richard Bristow, chairman of the bench at Uxbridge magistrates? court in Hillingdon, attributed the heavy sentences to the proximity of Heathrow airport.
?If the theft of a handbag happens at your local Tesco, for most magistrates it wouldn?t cross the custody threshold. But if it happens at Heathrow, where we think the victims are particularly vulnerable, it does,? he said.
There are particular inconsistencies in sentences for drink driving. In 2004 only three of North Gloucestershire?s 267 drink drivers were jailed, one of the lowest proportions in England and Wales. The majority, 82%, escaped with fines and driving bans.
Jeanette Small, 46, of Cutsdean, was one of them. Last March she escaped a jail sentence after causing a car crash while driving drunk. She was banned for one year and ordered to pay costs by Cheltenham magistrates.
One of the victims, Karyn Ballinger, 32, described the sentence as ?pathetic?.
However, drunk drivers receive harsher punishment from Camberwell Green magistrates in south London, where 74 out of 776 offenders were jailed, one of the highest proportions in the country.
Cindy Barnett, chairwoman of the Magistrates Association, said there needed to be ?judicial discretion? in sentencing. ?Promoting consistency of approach is important,? she said. ?but it would be wrong to have a tick-box approach.?
The Sentencing Guidelines Council is drafting new guidelines for magistrates that they will be legally obliged to adopt. Previous guidelines have been voluntary.