Prison should be last resort, Lord Chief Justice insists

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The Independent Online

No one who has committed a criminal offence should be sent to prison when there is an suitable alternative to custody, the most senior judge in England and Wales said yesterday. Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, called for a greater use of community service or probation, which he said could reduce reoffending and help ease prison overcrowding.

In the case of petty criminals, such as shoplifters, prison should be the last resort after everything else had been tried, he said. Housing criminals in cramped accommodation was bound to affect their rehabilitation, although the problem was not that more people are going to prison but that sentences are longer.

The prison population in England and Wales recently hit a record 82,180, leading to calls for a rethink on sentencing. But Lord Phillips, speaking at his annual press conference at the Royal Courts of Justice, urged ministers to avoid enacting legalisation and sentencing that pandered to the popular press.

"The reaction of government to what they see as media pressure in relation to sentences can produce ... legislation designed to counter what they see to be public opinion," he said.

Lord Phillips, who is to take over as the senior law lord later this year, said he was also concerned about short-term measures to alleviate overcrowding, including the early-release schemes that have recently seen thousands of prisoners let out early.

"I think it is still difficult for the public to understand sentencing as a whole," said Lord Phillips. "Where prisoners are released in these circumstances, that is to a degree ... an erosion of the sentence that the judge imposed and anticipated would be served. I think it would be... better if one had a clear sentencing structure, where if you imposed a sentence you could see how long that individual might spend in prison and when they would be eligible for parole."

His comments will be seen as a blow to the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, who was forced last week to change the rules of an early-release scheme after it was revealed that two terrorists had been freed. In another government measure, some prisoners are entitled to be released months early on an electronic tag under the so-called home detention curfew scheme.

Lord Phillips also raised concerns about the use of on-the-spot fines, which he said had "inherent dangers". If police repeatedly hand fixed penalties to anti-social offenders, local magistrates will not get to know persistent offenders in their area, he said.

Responding to the judge's comments, Mr Straw said: "As the review highlights, there are a number of success stories such as the development of criminal justice simple speedy summary, and reform of the tribunal system. There are ... also areas where we can do more. I will contin ue to work closely with the Lord Chief Justice and all of the senior judiciary to improve the administration of justice, building on the spirit and principles of partnership we have agreed in relation to the operation of the courts service."