Cannabis users will escape with £80 fixed penalty fine
Drug users caught with cannabis will be given £80 on-the-spot fines and will not get a criminal record or have to appear in court under government plans.
The use of controversial fixed penalty fines - originally created to deal with minor 'nuisance' offences - is being expanded to take in 21 new crimes.
These include stealing petrol from a filling station, making threats to destroy property and drunken and yobbish behaviour on trains.
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Magistrates attacked the plans at a crisis meeting with Justice Secretary Jack Straw last night. They warned that public confidence in the justice system will be seriously undermined if ministers insist on diverting more and more criminals away from the courts.
The 'Penalty Notice Disorder' or PND was introduced in 2001, originally to give police a quick and simple tool for dealing with what ministers described as minor 'nuisance' offences.
But the Government has repeatedly expanded the scheme and added more serious crimes, including shoplifting up to a value of £200. Critics claim such fines have become little more than an occupational hazard for hardcore thieves.
The latest dramatic expansion of the powers is due to come into effect on January 26.
Cannabis possession will become punishable with an £80 fine - just as ministers have supposedly toughened the law by reclassifying cannabis from a Class C to a Class B substance.
That increases the maximum punishment for possession to five years in jail.
But giving police the option of an instant fine will make it far less likely that offenders will face prosecution.
Tory justice spokesman Nick Herbert said: 'Handing out the equivalent of a parking ticket for cannabis possession makes a mockery of restoring cannabis to a Class B status and effectively amounts to a downgrading of the drug by stealth.
'Justice should be seen to be done, but if offenders only receive a penalty notice and no criminal record then victims can receive no compensation. What the Government calls "summary justice" is too often actually soft justice.'
The Magistrates' Association said in a letter to MPs: 'The singlingout of possession of cannabis for disposal through a PND sets it aside from the other Class B drugs and sends an unacceptable signal to those who use it.'
They also claimed that many of the crimes on the list ' cannot be a minor offence, as there is a human victim'.
The row will fuel accusations that Labour has gone 'soft on crime', in part because of the lack of space in Britain's jails.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: 'It is not always necessary for an offender to be taken to court for an offence to be dealt with effectively and to the satisfaction of the victim.'
# Matthew Hickley
# Mail Online
# January 14, 2009
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