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Thursday, September 10, 1998 Published at 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK

UK Politics

MPs demand cut in prison sentences

Prisons: Alternative punishments recommended

By BBC News Online's Nick Assinder.

A dramatic cut in the number of offenders being sent to prison has been demanded by a powerful Commons committee.

With the prison population escalating at an "unsustainable" rate, the MPs want a major change in policy with more electronic tagging, community service and probation orders.

The BBC's Reeta Chakrabarti: "Critics say the proposals are cost ridden"
They want more criminals to be forced to face the consequences of their actions - even with face-to-face confrontations with victims - in a bid to rehabilitate them.

But they have also demanded tough new punishments for offenders who breach the terms of non-custodial sentences, even if it means creating a new offence carrying a prison sentence.

Successive governments have called for tough punishments for criminals with Tony Blair elected on a platform of being "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".

Prison numbers rising

Judges and magistrates have taken ministers at their word and imposed more and longer sentences.

As a result, the prison population has risen by more than half in five years - to more than 65,000.

But the home affairs select committee was told by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, that about 70% of women prisoners, between 30 and 40% of young prisoners and 30% of all adult prisoners need not be in jail.

The MPs found that not enough was being done to examine alternatives to prison sentences, saying it was "astonishing" there was no rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of community sentences.

They concluded: "The rapidly-escalating prison population makes it of paramount importance to investigate alternatives to custody and to use them wherever appropriate.

"Prison will always be necessary for the most dangerous and/or persistent criminals, but it must be closely targeted on them, with other offenders being given non-custodial sentences which are effective and in which the sentencers and the public have confidence."

New penalties

They have recommended that community service orders - which often see offenders forced to repair the damage caused by crime - should be renamed criminal work orders to dispel the idea they are soft options.

But they should be backed up with stiff penalties, including prison sentences, for those who fail to carry them out properly.

They also called for greater use of probation orders where serious offenders are forced to stay in hostels.

They want more curfew orders imposed, with electronic tagging, and some offenders to be faced with the consequences of their crimes.

"While no-one doubts that imprisonment punishes a criminal, how does it rank alongside forcing a drink-driver to confront a mother whose child died in an accident caused by such a driver. There is more than one way to be tough on crime and its perpetrators.

Cheaper option

"There is no standard measurement of punishment. While prison deprives criminals of their liberty, community sentences can and should be rigorous.

"They should make demands in terms of hours worked, for example on community service, and also in the psychologically-challenging practice of forcing offenders to confront their criminal behaviour and its effects - something they may never be required to do in prison," they concluded.

They also pointed out that community service orders were cheaper than prison. The average unit cost of keeping someone in prison is 24,271 a year compared with 2,369 for a probation order and 1,770 for a community service order.

Taking the prime minister's words to heart, they also called for greater use of projects to divert young people from crime with the provision of sport and recreational activities.

"If ever there were a case for government taking a long term perspective - and, indeed being tough on the causes of crime - this is it," they concluded.

Committee chairman Chris Mullin told BBC Radio 4: "The weight of evidence was overwhelming.

"We took evidence from the Lord Chief Justice, the chief inspector of prisons and the head of the prison service, all of whom testified to the unprecedented strain on the existing system as a result of the huge and exponential rise in prison population, which will, if trends continue, lead to a very serious crisis."

Mixed reactions

The National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders said the report was of enormous political significance which signalled the death knell for tough sentencing policies.

The National Association of Probation Officers thought up to 10,000 of those in jail could be more effectively dealt with in the community, at a tenth of the cost.

But the Police Superintendents' Association challenged the report's criticism of the effectiveness of prison, saying crime costs more than jail terms.

Conservative home affairs spokesman James Clappison warned against overuse of tagging and criticised plans to let prisoners serve the last part of their sentences at home monitored with tags.

"Whilst tagging can be an effective sentence in its own right, it is a gross abuse to use tagging as a way of letting prisoners sentenced to imprisonment for serious crimes out early," he said.

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