Publishing new guidelines to magistrates aimed at ensuring prison was the last resort after all other methods had been exhausted, Gary Streeter, junior minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, said: "We rightly insist that people pay their fines, which are more than just money due. They are a debt to society. We also recognise that we do want to keep our prisons for hardened criminals and persistent offenders - people who break into our homes or beat up our families."
A Lord Chancellor's Department/Home Office working group, set up last May, is already considering whether curfews monitored by electronic tags could be used as an alternative punishment to jailing defaulters.
It will now study a range of other possible punishments, including the removal of offenders' driving licences, publishing names of defaulters in the local press and the Scottish system of supervised attendance orders. Mr Streeter told a news conference: "It's a question of taking away from people things they value by way of punishment." Legislation on any alternatives is not in prospect before the election, however.
Yesterday's "good practice" guidance on the enforcement of financial penalties comes against a background of mounting criticism of the increasing numbers of people, including women with families, jailed for non-payment of television licences or other minor offences.
Research figures published by the Home Office yesterday show that 22,469 men and 1,454 women were imprisoned for default in 1994, the highest figure for more than 10 years. But figures indicate a fall during 1995.
Magistrates believe they have been unfairly criticised because people who fail to turn up in court are tried in their absence with no information about their means. Rosemary Thompson, chairman of the Magistrates' Association and a member of the working party, yesterday insisted that "very small" numbers of women were imprisoned for default and that JPs only jailed defaulters "in despair at the end of the process."Reuse content