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Convicted thieves and fraudsters should be spared jail, says law professor Andrew Ashworth

Senior legal expert Andrew Ashworth says prison sentences should only be used for the most serious crimes

One of the UK’s most senior law professors has said that prison should not be used to punish criminals convicted of theft and fraud.

Andrew Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, said that jail terms, as the most severe punishment available to law enforcers, should be reserved only for the most serious crimes.

While those who commit offences of a violent, threatening or sexual nature should still face prison sentences, “pure property offences” ought to be dealt with through compensation for victims and community work, according to a pamphlet released by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The Howard League said it would be distributing the pamphlet, entitled “What If Imprisonment Were Abolished For Property Offences?”, to every magistrates’ court in England and Wales.

According to Prof Ashworth, although there may be some exceptions, a prison sentence is only truly worth considering where a victim is targeted because of their vulnerability. He also rejected the idea that those who continually commit property offences should eventually be imprisoned.

The pamphlet said that 20,000 people go to jail every year for theft or handling stolen goods, and that getting rid of these sentences would save around £230 million a year.

Prof Ashworth said: “Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?

”Instead, the priority should be to deal with such offences in the community, giving precedence to compensation or reparation for the victim and, where the offence is sufficiently serious, imposing a community sentence.“

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said: ”At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it's time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison.“

But a spokesman for Victim Support said community sentences would lose public confidence if offenders knew they could commit the same crime again and again and never face prison.

”Victims tell us they want more than anything else the punishment to fit the crime and for the criminal not to re-offend,” the spokesman said.

“A community sentence may be appropriate in some instances of property crime but not in others because crime type is not a reliable indicator of the impact an offence has on an individual victim.

And Justice Minister Damian Green told the BBC: ”People who commit these crimes devastate lives and cause untold misery in our communities.

“This government has no intention of changing the law to prevent judges sending them to prison. It is right they have the full range of sentencing options available to them.”