Thousands of repeat offenders are being spared jail by the courts, despite having as many as 100 previous convictions, it emerged last night.
As the Government prepares to unveil a blueprint which it hopes will reduce the number of non-violent offenders being sent to prison, new figures have revealed that courts are already showing leniency to some of the most persistent criminals in the country.
The Ministry of Justice statistics show that the number of offenders with more than 25 previous convictions or cautions being spared custody by the courts has risen sharply since 2007. The number with over 100 on their rap-sheet avoiding custody – despite being sentenced for crimes including violence against the person and theft – went up from 243 to 385 between 2007 and 2009.
Campaigners last night said the revelations would leave victims of crime feeling "angry and frustrated". The Tory MP Philip Davies, who obtained the figures from the House of Commons, said the sentencing details were "a complete scandal".
He added: "These people have been through community sentence after community sentence – and they are still offending. The last thing these people need is another community sentence."
The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is expected to propose tougher community sentences, including full-time community work, as an alternative to prison when he unveils his sentencing Green Paper later this week.
However, the plan has fuelled concerns that more dangerous or persistent criminals will not be sent to prison, amid the drive to reduce prisoner numbers.
In 2009, 2,660 criminals received non-custodial sentences for indictable offences – serious enough to be tried at Crown Court – despite being cautioned or convicted between 51 and 75 times, almost double the 1,605 total in 2007. The number of offenders who avoided immediate custody, despite having between 16 and 25 previous convictions or cautions, rose from 25,000 in 2007 to 28,000 last year.
In total, 3,500 people escaped prison sentences in 2009 despite having more than 50 previous convictions or cautions – compared with 2,182 in 2007. In 2009, 20,913 offenders - who had been convicted or cautioned between 26 and 50 times - received non-custodial sentences – compared to 16,367 in 2007. The law defines a persistent offender as someone convicted or cautions for three or more separate offences.
Mr Davies warned ministers were in for a "rude awakening" over their sentencing policy which was "a million miles away from public opinion".
Alex Flynn, of the charity Victim Support, said: "People will look at these figures and ask why these offenders aren't going to jail."