MAGISTRATES in Dorset jailed more than 60 people last year with offenders’ chances of being sent to prison are at their highest level in more than a decade.

In 2017, magistrates’ courts in the Dorset Police force area jailed 63 people, or 18 per cent of all those convicted.

This was the highest proportion of offenders jailed since at least 2007, and significantly more than the rate in England and Wales as a whole – where 3.8 per cent of those convicted are jailed.

Campaigners for reform of the prison system say that short prison sentences are a “catastrophe for everyone”, while the figures show that individual courts may value consistency of sentencing locally, rather than nationally.

Magistrates’ courts – in Dorset they are based in Weymouth, Poole and Bournemouth - can sentence people for up to six months in prison (or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence).

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “When magistrates send someone to prison, they are making a choice that can have disastrous consequences.

“Alarm bells start to ring when some courts make that decision much more frequently than courts located in other parts of the country.

“Short prison sentences are a catastrophe for everyone. As the government has recognised in recent ministerial announcements, the evidence shows that short bursts of imprisonment lead to more offending and more victims.

“When sentencing practices vary so significantly from region to region, it only strengthens the argument for removing from magistrates the power to sentence people to prison – and to look instead at redirecting their responsibilities to helping people to lead crime-free lives.”

A study carried out in 2007 for the Ministry of Justice showed significant variations in local sentencing across England and Wales.

In 2006 – the year the study looked at – the proportion of offenders jailed by magistrates varied from six per cent to 16 per cent. The range in 2017 was 1 per cent to nine per cent, suggesting that local variations have persisted.

The study found differences in sentencing could not be explained solely by the characteristics of the cases or offenders coming before the courts, and whilst these factors could contribute to sentencing variations, they did not fully account for them.

It suggested variations in sentencing may be the result of ‘local justice’ or the ‘human factor’, defined as the need to establish and maintain consistent policy in individual courts, which may have taken priority over maintaining consistency at a national level.

Another factor may have been the relationship between those handing out sentences, and other agencies such as the police and probation service.

Since 1998, there have been moves to create more consistent sentencing guidelines, which led to the creation of the Sentencing Council in 2010.

For those jailed in Dorset, the most common type of offence committed was theft – which saw 22 people locked up in 2017. Magistrates in Dorset were much more likely to send people to prison for violence against the person, jailing almost a third of those convicted, compared to 14.4 per cent across England, however magistrates in the area were almost half as likely to jail people for possession of weapons (14.8 per cent against 28.5 per cent).