Magistrates criticise bail plans

Magistrates have criticised plans to increase the use of bail for people awaiting trial in England and Wales.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke wants defendants who are unlikely to be jailed to get bail automatically - to ease prison overcrowding and cut costs.

The Magistrates' Association said they need the power to lock people up in case they approach witnesses, commit further crimes or fail to appear.

The government said courts needed "the right responses" to help cut crime.

Legislation could be published in May.

'Humiliating U-turn'

Mr Clarke has promised to end the rise in prisoner numbers and "break the cycle" of crime by tackling the causes of reoffending.

His Green Paper on sentencing in England and Wales aims to cut the 85,000 inmate population by 3,000.

But the Magistrates' Association says it is "strongly against" the proposal, which it claims could affect 35,000 suspects every year.

Mr Clarke also wants to halve prison terms for offenders who admit their crimes at the earliest opportunity.

But magistrates say the plans - combined with existing measures for release halfway through a sentence - risk undermining public confidence in the justice system.

The government wants to reduce the £4bn prison and probation budget by 20% over four years.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said its consultation aimed to "break the cycle of crime by reforming criminals".

"This will mean less crime, fewer victims and safer communities."

"There is no question that we must protect the public from the most dangerous criminals in our society; however we must also ensure the courts can make the right responses to stop people committing crime."

In December when the changes were first mooted shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said it was a "humiliating U-turn" by the Conservatives and meant pre-election promises to be tough on crime had been abandoned.

"Sentencing policy should be about dealing with offenders in the right way to protect the public but this review has been about trying to reduce the prison population in order to cut costs," he added.

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