Blunkett orders sentencing change in prisons U-turn

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David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, ordered an about-turn in prison policy yesterday when he announced an extension of fines, community punishments and electronic tagging of criminals in a drive to slow the remorseless rise in the numbers behind bars.

Ministers said the moves would cut the projected 2009 jail population by 13,000, admitting that many minor offenders who could be dealt with more effectively in other ways were being locked up.

The steps marked an abrupt reverse for the Government, under which courts have handed out longer sentences with little effect on crime. The Government said it wanted an end to the "drift" towards jailing low-risk convicts, who would instead be placed on tougher community schemes. It also promised a beefed-up fine system to be used for offenders now supervised by the Probation Service.

Potential schemes include fines set as a number of days, multiplied by the ability of the offender to pay. The idea, suggested yesterday by the government troubleshooter Patrick Carter as a way of rebuilding the credibility of fines, would offer a transparent link with an offender's income.

The Home Office called for a "step-change in sentencing practice" in courts and for an end to the huge regional variations in sentences. It also promised the introduction of "significantly more demanding" community sentences. Trials of periods of "intermittent custody", such as imprisoning offenders at weekends only, will begin this month.

The Home Office said themeasures would cut the expected prison population in five years' time from 93,000 to 80,000, and the numbers supervised in the community from 300,000 to 240,000. Ministers think the emphasis on rehabilitation could cut reoffend- ing by more than 10 per cent.

Paul Goggins, the Prisons minister, said: "We know there are people in prison today who could be more effectively dealt with with community sentences."

Mr Carter's analysis of the penal system made uncomfortable reading for the Home Office. He said: "Sentences are poorly targeted and do not bear down sufficiently on serious, dangerous and highly persistent offenders." He complained that policy was dominated by the need to manage the Prison Service and the National Probation Service "rather than focusing on the offender and reducing reoffending".

In response, the Government announced that the two services would be merged into the National Offender Management Service headed by Martin Narey, the Commissioner for Correctional Services at the Home Office.

In a Commons statement, Mr Blunkett said the aim of the measures was to "reduce crime by radically transforming the performance of the prison and probation services". He added: "This is a once in a generation opportunity to transform the way we manage offenders."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, welcomed many of the changes, but said they were an admission of failure. "It is the inevitable result of having a Home Secretary who talks tough on sentencing, who creates more crimes and more imprisonable offences but doesn't build enough prisons to house the increasing number of criminals and is then surprised when his prisons overflow," he said.

Paul Cavadino, the chief executive, of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said: "A reversal of the rising use of prison is unlikely to occur unless there is a change in political rhetoric about crime. Constant tough talk by politicians affects the climate in which courts operate and makes it more punitive."

Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The Probation and Prison services do not need another reorganisation. This could result in the demise of the Probation Service."

He said more resources were needed. "The caseloads of both services have increased by 50 per cent over the past decade while staffing levels have increased by just 5 per cent to 10 per cent."