Revolt stops plan to jail community service dodgers

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The Independent Online

The government's attempts to "get tough" on law and order have been set back by a climbdown over plans that would have resulted in up to 30,000 offenders being sent to prison each year.

The government's attempts to "get tough" on law and order have been set back by a climbdown over plans that would have resulted in up to 30,000 offenders being sent to prison each year.

Plans to introduce automatic jail sentences for offenders who fail to turn up for community service have been dropped by ministers to head off a Lords revolt.

The setback concerns a clause in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, which critics say would drive up the total number of people jailed each year by 25 per cent and would require the building of six new prisons at a cost of £360m.

The Conservative peer Lord Windlesham has tabled an amendment to delete theclause, for which he has received all-party support.

To head off the embarrassment of a lost vote, the Home Office minister Lord Bassam of Brighton has tabled a government amendment to water down the clause. Instead ofmandatory prison sentences, offenders who breach community punishment orders would be placed on curfews or be required to report to attendance centres.

The climbdown was welcomed by probation officers, who said that the Home Office plans for mandatory jail sentences would remove the discretion of the courts while doing nothing to reduce crime.

Lord Bassam's amendment states that "the court shall impose imprisonment unless it is of the opinion that the offender is likely to continue to comply with the rest of the Community Order".

The climbdown is a setback for the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who is determinedthat offenders are made totake community punishments seriously.

Mr Straw has been angered by the failure of probation officers to bring back before the courts those offenders who repeatedly fail to turn up for their community punishments.