Jailing of debtors at record levels: Use of prison for fine defaulters 'wastes millions'

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MORE PEOPLE are being jailed for debt than ever before - and it is wasting millions of pounds of public money, the probation officers' association said today.

An estimated pounds 30m was spent on jailing nearly 23,000 people last year for debts totalling only pounds 8m, a report by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) says.

The number of defaulters sent to prison in 1993 - including 845 who failed to pay their television licence and a further 504 who had poll tax arrears - increased by 17 per cent on the previous year.

The total, which represents about a quarter of all people held in custody, is expected to rise further this year. The vast majority of those jailed were unemployed and in multiple debt for fuel, lighting and rent payments.

A paper published today by Napo calls for a change in the law, which it says is wasting millions of pounds and is frequently used to penalise the poor, the vulnerable and the unemployed.

Napo reports that the average sentence for the debtors was two weeks in jail, and in eight out of 10 cases the cost of custody exceeded the outstanding fines.

Using court and prison statistics, Napo estimates that it cost the taxpayer nearly pounds 15m last year to keep defaulters in prison, and pounds 15m was estimated to have been spent on court and administrative costs. Few of the original fines are recovered, it says.

Although more than 90 per cent of people jailed are men, an increasing number of women are incarcerated for not paying their television licence. The total rose from 136 women in 1991 to 292 in 1993.

The number of people jailed for debt has been rising since 1988, when the figure was 16,817. Most have failed to pay fines for offences including motoring crimes and theft, and also prostitution, loitering, drug and alcohol abuse and criminal damage. About one million offenders were given fines last year.

In case studies collected by Napo, the amount owed varied from pounds 20 to pounds 1,478; sentences ranged from 7- 90 days. In up to one-third of the cases the defaulter had no previous custodial or criminal record.

Cases include:

A woman, 30, with three children at school who was fined pounds 300 for non-payment of a television licence, was jailed for 14 days despite having no previous convictions or other debts.

A man, 35, from the West Midlands, with a three-year-old son, was jailed for two weeks for non-payment of a fine of pounds 300 for a road-traffic offence.

A 70-day prison sentence was given to a woman, 23, from Manchester with a four-year-old daughter. She had poll tax debts of pounds 400 and no previous convictions.