Guidelines urge fewer prison sentences and more community penalties

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The Independent Online

Courts are to be told to send fewer first-time offenders to prison in new sentencing guidelines to be issued to 30,000 magistrates in England and Wales.

The guidance urges magistrates to consider community penalties rather than custodial sentences for a range of petty offences such as driving while disqualified, burglary and theft.

The Lord Chief Justice caused controversy last year when he issued Court of Appeal guidelines for sentencing burglars. Lord Woolf urged judges and magistrates to consider community-based sentences rather than a few months of prison for petty offenders.

He said prison terms of less than a year did little to help rehabilitate offenders and argued that where offenders posed no risk to the public, and there were no aggravating features to the burglary, a community penalty could be of more benefit to the offender and at the same time help to halt the growth of the prison population.

The new advice to magistrates, to be issued in September, will incorporate Lord Woolf's guidance for burglary but will also cover other offences that have traditionally attracted prison sentences.

The starting point for sentencing those who drive while disqualified has been amended from custody to a community penalty. Where an offender has been convicted of theft in breach of trust, magistrates will now be urged to consider community penalties rather than a prison sentence of six months.

A study published in July found that petty offenders are now three times more likely to receive custodial sentences than they were in 1991. The South Bank University study, commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust, undermines the widely held view that the courts are too soft on criminals.

The authors identified two main factors in the rise in the prison population - the jailing of offenders who would previously have received commu-nity penalties and the courts' willingness to impose longer sentences.

Concern is growing that proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to double the sentencing powers of magistrates will continue the trend of sending more petty offenders to prison.

Consultation on the new guidance will be considered by the Magistrates' Court Sentencing Guidelines working group before it is issued.

Lord Woolf has said "It is now accepted on all sides that prisons can do nothing for prisoners who are sentenced to less than 12 months.

"If prison was what was called for, the most appropriate sentence would be one of no longer than one month, to give the offender the experience of the 'clang of the prison door'."