Too many drivers are in jail, says prison boss

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Too many drivers are being jailed for motoring offences, the head of the Prison Service said yesterday.

Martin Narey said the prison system was in danger of being "overrun" by motoring offenders and other petty criminals as the courts imposed more jail sentences.

The result had been a fourfold increase in the number of convicted drivers behind bars over the past decade, he said.

Many offenders were now languishing in jail who should have been dealt with through community penalties.

"The Prison Service is being overrun with many short-term prisoners - lots of people who are in prison now who would not have been in prison 10 years ago," he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost.

"Custody rates for some quite petty offending have quadrupled, motoring offences for example. Custody rates at the magistrates' courts for men and women convicted of motoring [offences] are four times higher now than they were 10 years ago. They don't need to be in jail in such numbers."

His comments were seized on by campaigners who claimed that motorists were being jailed because they were seen as an "easy target".

A spokesman for the Association of British Drivers said: "Prison is intended as a method by which we remove dangerous people from society - murderers, rapists, people who damage others."

Prosecutions for serious motoring offences had dropped over the past decade while the number of speeding offences had soared, he said. "When you have a situation like this, respect for the law starts to break down."

The AA was more guarded, saying that most motorists who were sent to prison had committed serious offences such as driving while disqualified and causing death by dangerous driving.

Andrew Howard, the AA's head of road safety, said public support for jailing such offenders was growing. "What else can you do with someone who has ignored a court order or has killed someone on the road?" he said.

The most recent figures show that in 2001 more than 12,000 people were jailed or remanded in custody for driving offences, of which 2,400 were for drink or drug driving offences.