Prison terms of less than a year do not help rehabilitate offenders, the Lord Chief Justice has warned the Government in an outspoken attack on sentencing policies. Lord Woolf, England's most senior judge, said many criminals sentenced to a few months should be offered community service.
If the point of sending someone to prison for a short period of time was to give offenders a taste of jail, custody should be limited to no more than a month, he suggested.
Lord Woolf told a group of Australian lawyers and judges in Sydney that overcrowding in Britain's jails was "a cancer eating at the ability of the Prison Service to deliver". The judge said two thirds of the 73,000 inmates would be reconvicted within two years of release.
He added: "It [overcrowding] is exacerbated by a large number of prisoners who should not be there, the most significant group being those sentenced to less than 12 months' imprisonment. It is now accepted on all sides that prisons can do nothing for prisoners who are sentenced to less than 12 months.
"In many of those cases, the prisoners could have been punished in the community. If prison was what was called for, the most appropriate sentence would be one of no longer than one month, to give the offender the experience of the 'clang of the prison door'."
Lord Woolf said the Government should adopt a "holistic approach" to offending, so criminal justice agencies can "really tackle the causes of crime". The criminal justice system of England and Wales, the Lord Chief Justice said, was "doing even worse than our cricket team in achieving its objectives".
Anticipating that his speech might provoke a hostile reaction, Lord Woolf told his audience: "I recognise what I am about to say is capable of being labelled soft or liberal. In fact, it is not soft, but realistic common sense. The effectiveness of a criminal justice system has to be judged by the extent to which it can deter crime and reduce the pattern of further re-offending."
He said these questions should "influence the decision" on whether to prosecute offenders as well as what form rehabilitation should take.
Lord Woolf painted a bleak picture of the judicial challenges in England and Wales. He said three recent reports on sentencing in England and Wales made "extremely depressing reading". Each, he said, "describes a situation in which it is apparent that our present sentencing policies are not working. They are failing to deliver what should be the primary role of the criminal justice system, the protection of the public".
Lord Woolf accepted there was a need to punish those who had committed crimes but he said the pendulum had swung too far. "We are overly concerned with satisfying the public's, and individual victim's, thirst for vengeance rather than seeking to reduce the number of victims." He also called for the "eradication of politics" from criminal justice.
His comments are bound to antagonise the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who was angered by Lord Woolf's recent recommendation to judges to jail fewer burglars.
Mr Blunkett was accused yesterday of "panicking" over the prisons crisis after he ordered Home Office staff to issue jail population statistics less frequently. Details of the number of people in prison in England and Wales are to be issued once a week instead of once a day.
It is understood Mr Blunkett personally ordered changes to the way the Prison Service publishes statistics to try to stop daily reporting by the media of the continuous rise in the prison population.
8,334 prison inmates are serving sentences of less than 12 months, more than one in 10 of the prison population.
Their crimes include:
Theft, shoplifting and handling stolen goods 2,215
Drugs offences (possession and supply) 262
Indecent assault and other sexual offences 72
The figures are the most recent published by the Home Office