THE agency responsible for setting sentencing guidelines for crimes has defended new drugs sentencing rules after they were criticised by a Sheffield judge.
Judge Michael Murphy QC, who sits at Sheffield Crown Court, spoke out after claiming new guidelines he must follow when sentencing defendants for drugs offences meant he had to give a cannabis grower a community sentence – when previously he would have jailed him.
But the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, a government body which produces guidelines on sentencing, said the judge could have used his discretion and sent Craig Cupit to prison.
Cupit, aged 33, of Swinton, was caught with eight cannabis plants growing in his cellar, which would have yielded nearly 900g of the Class B drug. He was given a 12 month community order.
A Sentencing Council spokesman said: “The new guideline on drug offences brings guidance for the courts together for the first time, which will help to ensure consistent and proportionate sentencing for all drug offences.
“It comes into force in courts on February 27 so is not yet being used to sentence people convicted of drug offences.
“The guideline increases sentences for organisers of industrial scale drug production and it does not in any way reduce sentences for smaller scale production offences.
“We do not expect judges and magistrates to be changing the way they sentence.
“Guidelines should be followed but, where a judge feels it is not in the interests of justice to do so, they can sentence outside the guideline and up to the maximum set out by law.”
Last year Judge Murphy said cannabis production had become a ‘cottage industry’ in South Yorkshire and courts were seeing more people growing plants in spare rooms, cellars and lofts.
His concerns were echoed by Sheffield’s top Judge Alan Goldsack QC who said, after a Court of Appeal case, judges had been told to give harsher penalties to cannabis growers.
The Sentencing Council spokesman said: “Every case is different and the specific facts of each case will dictate what sentence is given.”
He also refuted Judge Murphy’s assertion the guidelines were a ‘lottery’ and said the rules had been changed to make courts more consistent in sentencing.