Letter: Implications of new Criminal Justice Act

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your otherwise excellent article 'Judges to be told of race bias risk' (21 September) incorrectly states that some penal reform groups 'such as Nacro' predict that the prison population will rise after the Criminal Justice Act 1991 is implemented next month.

This is not Nacro's view. The act contains the tightest legislative restrictions ever imposed on the use of custodial sentences. It empowers courts to pass combinations of community sentences that should provide a credible option for many offenders who were previously imprisoned. The new means-related 'unit fine' system should mean lower fines for poorer offenders, thereby reducing imprisonment for fine defaults.

The act's requirements for mandatory pre-sentence reports gives the probation service an opportunity to persuade courts of the desirability of community sentences in cases where prison sentences would now be passed. All these provisions should help to achieve a lower use of custody.

It is true, however, that the act's recasting of the parole system taken on its own would increase the prison population by up to 1,400 if there were no compensating reduction in sentence lengths. We have certainly expressed concern about this aspect of the act, which could reduce the beneficial impact on the prison population of its other provisions.

A clear lead from the Court of Appeal in the direction of shorter sentences is therefore needed if the act is to fulfil its full potential to reduce the use of imprisonment.

Yours faithfully,

VIVIEN STERN

Director

National Association for the Care

and Resettlement of Offenders

London, SW9

23 September

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