It is time to be creative when it comes to prison

If they are strictly designed and strictly enforced, community service and/or compensation won't be the soft option

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The Independent Online

Non-threatening criminals such as thieves and fraudsters should be given fines or community-service penalties, reserving jail for violent offenders.

So says eminent law professor Andrew Ashworth. Non-custodial sentences are a more proportionate response to non-violent crime, he claims – and would also reduce Britain’s bulging prison population by nearly 6,000.

Critics swiftly characterised the suggestion as soppy liberalism, yet another ad absurdum example of rights over responsibilities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Government – just as swiftly – made clear that the law will not be changed. Professor Ashworth does have a point, though. There are more than 84,000 people locked up in our overcrowded prisons. Recidivism rates are nearly as high as they have ever been. Whether jail is considered a punishment, a deterrent, a safety mechanism or all three, too often it is not working.

Custodial sentences are still appropriate for the most egregious non-violent crimes and the most repetitive criminals. But there is much to be said for keeping more low-level offenders out of prison for longer. Nor need community service and/or compensation be so soft an option, if they are strictly designed and strictly enforced.

More “restorative justice”, bringing victims and perpetrators together, would also help. Reoffending rates often drop sharply when criminals are given an insight – sometimes for the first time – into the human cost of their actions. There are moves to expand the availability of such schemes, but they still do not receive the attention they deserve, among policymakers or criminal justice professionals.

There are ways to make the criminal justice system more humane and more effective without letting offenders off lightly. We should not be afraid to explore them.