Cut prison numbers, say MPs

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The Independent Online
A POWERFUL House of Commons committee yesterday called on courts to lock up fewer criminals and make greater use of community sentencing to relieve pressure on Britain's "full to bursting" prisons.

The Home Affairs Select Committee said the Government should set up trials to reduce the burden on prisons by using weekend sentences where offenders go to work during the week and are jailed only on Saturday and Sunday.

The MPs also called for greater use of suspended sentences and backed government plans to extend home curfew initiatives where offenders are made to wear electronic tags.

The report was heralded by penal reformers as the "death knell" for the culture of tough sentencing policy which has seen the jail population rise by 50 per cent in the past five years to 65,000. The figure is expected to grow to 82,000 by 2005 - despite a falling crime rate.

Paul Cavadino, of the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, said: "It is the clearest all-party statement for several years of the futility of jailing more and more offenders in increasingly overstretched prisons. It reflects a striking sea-change in the political consensus away from the idea that locking up more offenders holds the answer to crime problems."

But the report was criticised by the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales which said the bulging prisons were the reason for the fall in crime. The president of the association, Chief Superintendent Peter Gammon, said: "The fact is prison works. That has been proved over the last five years. Yes, on the face of it prison is expensive, costing pounds 1.8bn a year, but so is crime which costs the country as much as pounds 30bn a year."

The Commons report states that according to Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector of prisons, about 30 per cent of adult prisonersshould not be in jail. In addition, about 70 per cent of the women and 40 per cent of young prisoners serving sentences did not need to be jailed.

The committee chairman, Chris Mullin MP, said: "There are offenders for whom prison is the only appropriate penalty, but there are many people currently sentenced to imprisonment who could be dealt with more effectively and at far less expense by a non-custodial sentence."

MPs said there was evidence that the best forms of community sentence were more effective in stopping criminals repeating their offences and were cheaper. They said the bill for an average prison sentence was pounds 24,271 compared with pounds 1,770 to pounds 3,500 for a community sentence, depending on the type of order.

The committee was also critical of probation officers for only taking action against offenders who breach their community sentences in 28 per cent of cases. "Strict enforcement of community sentences is vital to their credibility," they said.

But Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The number of probation officers in post has fallen by 10 per cent since 1995. During the same period court orders have grown by 29 per cent. Improving standards is not sustainable without sufficient staff."