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1,000 criminals still on the run from prison

Almost 1,000 criminals who should have been returned to prison are still at large, it was revealed yesterday.

Among those still on the run are 20 murderers, 15 rapists and 140 burglars, the Ministry of Justice said.

Police forces have launched an urgent search for the most serious violent and sexual offenders - including five paedophiles.

But officials refused to name those still at large - despite police forces issuing detailed wanted notices on some cases.

The Ministry of Justice said that at the end of March 954 offenders were still at large in England and Wales who had been recalled to prison for breaching the terms of their release.

Among them were some criminals who should have been returned to prison up to 25 years ago. A total of 19 offenders recalled between 1984 and 1999 remain at large.

A further 142 have been on the run for between five and ten years and never apprehended.

In addition, 180 criminals released early from prison under a scheme designed to reduce overcrowding since June 2007 are still at large.

The figures also revealed that police were missing targets for how quickly they should arrest offenders - leaving thousands more offenders out longer than they should have been.

Police and probation services were criticised last month when it emerged delays meant sadistic killer Dano Sonnex was free to kill French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez despite being recalled to jail.

Today's data - released for the first time - revived fears serious criminals are being allowed to roam free instead of being behind bars.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said: "The whole point of releasing prisoners on licence is that they can be monitored and returned to prison if they breach.

"The public will be shocked that the Government has lost track of almost 1,000 criminal fugitives - including murderers, paedophiles and sex offenders.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, the probation union, said the figures were of "real concern".

He said "chasing warrants" should be a priority for the police.

"It is of real concern that nearly one thousand offenders who have been recalled to custody have gone missing. Many pose a threat to the public," he said.

"However the numbers will only be reduced if chasing warrants becomes a priority for the police - which won't happen - or additional resources are made available for the probation and police services."

Offenders are recalled to prison if they breach the terms of their release. Around a fifth commit further crimes and many others fail to meet their probation officer.

Most criminals who serve sentences of 12 months or more are automatically released at the halfway point of their sentence. Until their term is up they are "on licence", with conditions on how they should behave.

Of the 954 still at large at the end of last month, 158 were originally convicted of violent crimes.

That total includes 20 murderers, 51 criminals convicted of causing GBH, and three with offences for assaulting police officers.

Thirty-three were sexual offenders, including five paedophiles, 15 rapists and ten with records for sexual assault.

There were also 140 burglars, 98 fraudsters and 182 drugs offenders.

Police forces can advertise "wanted" notices for criminals who have not been successfully recalled. But only 13 currently appear on the Crimewatch website.

MoJ officials rejected requests for details of those on the run for more than a decade, saying it would not be "appropriate" for them to be identified.

A spokesman defended the department's performance on recalls as "creditable" and said police had an "action plan" in place to deal with outstanding cases.

He said: "The largest majority of reasons for recall in this data are for being out of touch with their probation officer.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: "The recall system works well - of those recalled between 1999 and June 2008, just 0.7% of offenders have not been apprehended.

"But we are far from complacent, and recognise that the system has to be strengthened further, not least in respect of those serious offenders who remain at large.

Police must find 75% of recalled prisoners classified as "emergency" cases within 74 hours and three-quarters of standard recalls should be completed within six days.

But since 2007 nearly 10,000 criminals were not back in jail within the target time.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) told forces to take "priority action" to urgently arrest sexual and violent offenders.

Acpo enforcement lead ACC Terry Sweeney said offenders were recalled to custody "as speedily as possible".

"The police service works tirelessly to take dangerous people off the streets and bring them before the courts.

"When offenders are released on licence and then recalled, we will do all we can to return them to custody once again.

"Where individuals are not returned to custody immediately, all forces will keep their cases under active review."