Bill to outlaw jailing of 22,500 defaulters

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A bid to end the centuries-old practice of jailing petty fine defaulters - up to 500 a day - is to be launched by MPs later this month.

Concern that magistrates' courts are sending thousands of people to prison - often illegally - for small debts and non- payment of fines has prompted the drawing up of a Bill designed to cut the use of custody, except in the most extreme circumstances. Drawn up by probation officers, they estimate that the measures will reduce the 22,500 defaulters and debtors jailed every year by about 80 per cent and will save the taxpayer up to pounds 20m per annum.

It will be introduced by Alex Carlisle of the Liberal Democrats later this month, but has cross-party support.

The fact that magistrates were often illegally exceeding their powers to jail people for not paying poll tax and for television licences was first highlighted by the Independent 18 months ago, prompting a change in magistrates' guidelines. In one case, four children had to be taken into care after their mother was jailed for 28 days for a poll tax debt.

In the last 12 months the High Court has ordered the freeing of over 100 people wrongly jailed by magistrates.

In February this year, concerned by the record rise in the prison population and adverse publicity about the imprisonment of people living in poverty for debt, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, announced a review of the powers under which they are jailed.

He was examining the use of electronic tags to enforce house arrest, community service or supervised payments as alternatives to custody. Mr Howard said he shared concerns that too many defaulters were placing an unwelcome burden on hard-pressed jails - and that once defaulters are imprisoned the fine is wiped out.

But yesterday Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The Home Secretary's initiative announced last February apparently is not yet off the ground."

"The use of debtors' jail is an unnecessary and brutal use of resources. The cost of jailing one defendant can be prohibitive and could include prison service costs of pounds 500, prosecution warrant and administrative costs of pounds 800 and a further pounds 700 if children were placed in care. At a minimum, therefore, it is costing at least pounds 22m per year to incarcerate defaulters." Napo has detailed 18 defaulters' cases, involving "hardship, debt, misery and wrongful imprisonment".

They include the case of a 42-year-old woman with a history of psychiatric illness, who fell behind with her pounds 1,300 fines for motoring offences. She was sentenced to jail in her absence and arrested on the psychiatric ward of a local hospital.

A second was a single mother of two young children, suffering cervical cancer, who was fined for shoplifting nappies. She was jailed for seven days when she could not pay the fine.

Another was a 20-year-old unemployed man who was fined pounds 150 for underpaying pounds 1.20 of his bus fare. He was jailed when he could not pay the fine.

The Bill, if enacted, would outlaw the use of jail for fine default if the original offence did not merit a sentence of imprisonment and would ensure reports including details of income were provided to magistrates. It would also remove the legal test of "culpable neglect" to pay a debt - because it relies upon a subjective test of a person's ability to pay.