'Make community sentences more challenging'

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The Independent Online

Government plans to increase the use of community sentences for petty offenders may have little immediate impact on prison populations and increase costs in the short term, a senior magistrate warned today.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke wants a review of sentencing policy to result in more punishment in the community for criminals who would otherwise serve short terms of 12 months or less behind bars, arguing that it could save money and increase the chance of successful rehabilitation.



But John Thornhill, the chairman of the Magistrates Association of England and Wales, said that more spending may be needed to make punishments like unpaid work in the community "challenging and strong and effective".



In as many as 80% of cases, petty offenders jailed by magistrates only end up in prison because they have failed to complete community sentences, while others have been through programmes several times without reforming, he said.



Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Thornhill asked: "Is there going to be sufficient funding to provide the wide range of community programmes that we need to impose on those who pass the custody threshold so that we can prevent them going to custody and put them on a programme that is challenging and strong and effective and will turn them away from reoffending?"



He added: "At any one time, about 6% of the total prison population is made up of offenders that have been sent there by magistrates' courts. That is a very small number, and reducing that figure isn't significantly going to reduce the cost of the prison service.



"Many of those offenders have only been sent there because they failed to comply with community orders one, two or three times that have been imposed by magistrates.



"The other group is the group of offenders who persistently come back to reoffend and who have a long list of previous convictions for similar and allied offences. Although they may have had community orders... they have failed to turn their lives around."



Mr Thornhill, who airs his concerns on Radio 4's The Report at 8pm today, said that community sentences could not be delivered on the cheap.



"They have got to be challenging," he said. "They have got to make the offender realise that it is in their best interest and society's best interest to stop their offending behaviour.



"The more prolific they are in terms of offending behaviour, the more difficult it is and the more challenging the programme has got to be. That makes it labour-intensive and costly.



"In one sense, these sorts of programmes are not necessarily cheaper than prison sentences, but in the long term they may well reduce the prison population significantly. We may have to speculate to accumulate."