Prison system review delivers hammer blow to Blunkett's reform plans

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The credibility of David Blunkett's overhaul of the criminal justice system has been dealt a heavy blow by a Downing Street-led review into the future of the prison system.

With the Home Secretary struggling to contain a relentless rise in the jail population, the review calls for the direction of government policy on law and order to be reversed.

It warns that the Criminal Justice Bill, yet to reach the statute book, will only result in more people being locked up and will have little impact on crime levels.

In a conclusion that will infuriate Mr Blunkett, it backs strict limits on who is jailed and on the length of their sentences, as well as greater use of fines, tackling regional disparities in sentences and an extension of electronic tagging.

The examination of prison and probation services, headed by the millionaire businessman Patrick Carter, is expected to present its proposals next month.

Its brief is to find ways of reducing crime and the fear of crime and "ensuring an affordable, cost effective and financially sustainable approach to correctional services".

A summary of the review's initial conclusions, seen by The Independent, amounts to a barbed critique of the Government's record on law and order. It says: "Over a minimum level, small changes in sentence length are unlikely to have a significant deterrent impact."

It also takes a swipe at Mr Blunkett's much-vaunted Criminal Justice Bill, which allows magistrates to impose longer sentences on offenders and lays down minimum tariffs for murder and gun crime.

The summary says: "Custody should be reserved for the serious and dangerous offenders. However, further increases in the use of custody or sentence length are unlikely to have an impact on crime or the fear of crime. Policies in the Criminal Justice Bill will further increase the use of custody."

The comments echo a warning from Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who forecast in June that plans for longer minimum jail terms for murderers would be felt throughout the court system in longer sentences for other offenders.

The Carter review points out that 50 per cent of domestic burglars are now jailed - for an average of 18 months - compared with one in four in 1995-96.

The review argues that the steep increase in the prison population - up by 13,000 since Labour came to power - has only had a small impact in crime levels. And it warns that recent experience from the United States suggests concerns about the affordability of locking up large numbers of offenders can ultimately undermine public confidence in the system.

It calls for more "low-risk offenders" to be kept out of court by the use of conditional cautions and reparative work with victims.

The review condemns the "unacceptable variation" in sentencing around the country, calling for better advice to criminal justice areas, possibly from an independent body.

It says that there has been a "collapse in the use of fines", and demands tougher enforcement of the fine system, together with fines better related to income.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the analysis was a "real blow" to the Criminal Justice Bill. He said: "Labour has turned out to be just as keen on imprisonment as the Conservatives were ... the latest Bill is another stride down the American path towards mass incarceration.

"Prison is too often the soft option, and community sentences can be far tougher on the offender. To communicate that message requires political courage and leadership ... which are lacking in this Government."

A Home Office spokesman said: "We don't comment on leaked documents."