Big cuts in jail terms urged by review body

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The Independent Online

A big reduction in the length of prison sentences, affecting 75,000 offenders each year, is to be proposed by a government-commissioned review.

A big reduction in the length of prison sentences, affecting 75,000 offenders each year, is to be proposed by a government-commissioned review.

Under the proposals being drawn up by a Home Office team, anyone given a sentence of 12 months or less would have their time spent in jail cut by as much as two-thirds, with the remainder served in the community.

The review team has been commissioned by the Home Office to come up with new ideas for sentencing. It is expected to advise ministers that reducing sentences is the only way of breaking the "revolving door" of offending and prison. The Government is understood to have accepted the team's provisional conclusion that custodial sentences alone are not working. Next week the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will use a speech to tackle the issue of short-term offenders.

Maureen Bateman, a magistrate and a consultant member of the review team, said that all attempts to rehabilitate short-term prisoners had failed. "What they do in prison has no bearing on offending behaviour after release," she said. "Short-term prisoners are moved from prison to prison and can't build a proper relationship with the probation and other services." She added: "As soon as they are out they are reoffending."

But she cautioned that the new approach was not "because we like criminals but because we need to reduce crime", stressing that everything possible would be done to protect the public.

Under the proposed new programme the offender would be released much earlier than they would be now, after serving a short prison sentence - perhaps as little as one-third of the original term. The remaining sentence would be served in community and would mean "appointments five days a week" with the Probation Service and, where necessary, 24-hour curfews.

At the same time, the review team is proposing tougher action against persistent offenders who commit petty crime. Ms Bateman said that under current legislation it was difficult to impose community or custodial sentences on serial or habitual petty offenders, such as shoplifters, because each offence had to be serious in itself to justify anything other than a fine.

Ms Bateman said that too often shoplifters were appearing for the "fortieth or fiftieth time" on charges for the same kind of offence. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, unless there were exceptional circumstances, the courts were forced to release them, whereupon they committed another offence, she said.

"It is these kind of people who the public are frankly getting fed up with," she said.

Another proposal being considered by the sentencing review team is a "totting up" system for persistent offenders based on the points system for drivers. Those offenders who clocked up the necessary "points" would be more likely to face custodial or community sentence rather than fines or lesser penalties.

The team will present its interim report to ministers by the end of the year.