Prison governors called for magistrates to be stripped of their powers to jail offenders yesterday as the prison population of England and Wales passed 70,000 for the first time in penal history.
Mike Newell, president of the Prison Governors' Association accused magistrates of ignoring the many alternatives to sending offenders to prison and thereby contributing to the crisis in the jail system. He said: "Magistrates now have a wide range of community penalties available to them but they insist on imposing inappropriate prison sentences. We say these powers should now be taken away to stop such inappropriate sentencing."
Mr Newell pointed out that magistrates could impose a maximum 12-month sentence, which he said was too short for prison staff to do effective rehabilitative work with offenders.
"Sending people to prison for short sentences often causes more harm than good. People can lose their homes, their jobs and their families – there are other sentencing options that should be taken," he said. "The effect of too many prisoners is slow but extremely damaging, and turns us back to where we were many years ago."
The association said 4,000 prisoners were serving sentences of one week or less.
Mr Newell said: "If these people had not been sent to prison, the pressure on the system would not be so great. Only this week a 77-year-old man was jailed for seven days for not filling in his census form properly. That cannot be right."
The comments of the governors were promptly taken up by penal reformers. The Howard League for Penal Reform supported the call for magistrates to lose their custodial sentencing powers and called for David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to release all inmates serving less than three months, to relieve prison overcrowding. It also demanded that juveniles and women be sent to prison only for violent or serious offences.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the prison system "will present a risk to public safety" unless greater use was made of community sentences.
But the Magistrates Association said its members used their sentencing powers to jail people only "as a last resort". Harry Mawdsley, the chairman of the association, said: "Less than 10 per cent of custodial sentences are imposed by magistrates. When offenders are guilty of committing a serious crime, for example of assaulting someone such as a nurse or a bus driver ... then magistrates must have an option to give custody."
The prison population was at 69,892 yesterday morning and was due to go beyond 70,000 during the day. The jail capacity of England and Wales is about 71,000 and prisons are already struggling to cope.
Although projections last year suggested the prison population could reach 85,000 by 2006-07 – because of changing sentencing patterns and a rise in cases coming to court – the increase in the past two months has been sharp and has caught the Home Office off guard.
Martin Narey, the director general of the Prison Service, said: "Things are very tight at the moment. For the last three weeks there has been an utterly inexplicable rise in the prison population of about 600 prisoners a week. And that in a period during which the Home Office statisticians told us that there would be no rise in the population at all. That's put us under very severe strain."