Byline: GARETH LIGHTFOOT
A TEESSIDE judge has slammed sentencing guidelines for letting off first-time burglars with a "slap across the wrist".
Judge Peter Bowers said of sentencing guidelines for burglary offences: "They bear little relation to reality when you get down to it.
"If I actually told somebody in the public that for a first offence of burglary they should get a slap across the wrist and told to behave - which is effectively what it means - they would be outraged.
"In fact, it's time somebody looked at domestic burglary and the misery it causes."
Discussion turned to sentencing guidelines during a case of attempted burglary at Teesside Crown Court this week.
The judge made the remarks after Robert Mochrie, defending one of two defendants, said: "It's a shame that the guidelines tend to invite something of an academic approach to sentencing."
Judge Bowers has repeatedly criticised sentencing guidelines in recent years, likening them to a "chocolate fireguard" in two assault cases in 2009 and 2010. He called them "repugnant" and "woefully inadequate" last July.
In a case where a sex offender groomed and groped a teenage girl, he said he had to stick to the guidelines - which recommended a community order - but that the public wouldn't agree with them.
Sentencing another sex offender in 2010, he said: "They don't pay as much attention to the victims, in my judgment, as they ought to - but I'm bound by them.
"I don't know if the public appreciate the sort of sentences that are being forced down upon judges in many cases.
"Members of the public say: 'What are the judges doing?'.
"The answer is, we're doing what we're told to do."
In the latest case, he was sentencing Sam Dowson, 20, and Ryan Hamilton, 19, from Hardwick, Stockton, after they admitted a charge of attempted burglary.
The drunken pair were caught on CCTV outside a home in Flixton Grove, Billingham in the early hours of November 24 last year. Nothing was stolen.
Duncan McReddie, defending Dowson, said he did not consider himself a burglar and needed counselling over tragic events.
Judge Bowers gave the defendant, of Piper Knowle Road, a six-month prison term; Hamilton, of Kininvie Walk, Hardwick, nine months; both suspended for 18 months with curfews and supervision.
A spokesman for the Sentencing Council, which prepares sentencing guidelines, said all of its guidelines were subject to three-month public consultations with the public and criminal justice professionals.
The council says the guidelines came into force in January, with amendments made as a result of public consultation between May and August last year. They put the starting point for the lowest category of domestic burglary as a high-level community order.
Criminologist Michael Teague, who works at Teesside University's School of Social Sciences and Law, said guidelines were nothing new and judges still had discretion.
"It's not getting any less tough than it was," he added. "I think it's just systematising - adding a degree of order to what's already happening. I wouldn't have thought it would dramatically alter sentencing behaviour. "It would be quite unusual to deal with an offence of burglary with what some people might call a slap on the wrist."
He said sentencing guidelines were needed to bring consistency, with England and Wales locking up more people than anywhere else in Europe - in overcrowding prisons - at an average cost of pounds 45,000 per person per year.
"We need to have a serious look at what we do in this country," he said. "Are we actually doing enough to rehabilitate people?" Do judges have enough power? SENTENCING guidelines are taking an increasingly prominent role in criminal cases.
In sentencing hearings now, barristers and judges routinely refer to the guidelines - with an obligation to do so under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. …