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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 15:21 GMT
First-time burglars to avoid prison
Lincoln jail interior
Lord Woolf thinks community sentences are better
The average first-time non-professional and non-violent domestic burglar will no longer be sent to prison, following a ruling by the Lord Chief Justice.

Lord Woolf said the sentencing "starting point" of up to 18 months in prison no longer applied and courts should impose a community sentence in the first instance.

But that must be an effective punishment which would tackle the offender's underlying problems, such as drug addiction, he added.

This is another example where the offender and not the victim is being put at the centre of the criminal justice system's concerns

Rod Dalley,
Police Federation

Opposition parties have welcomed the ruling.

But the police and Labour MP Graham Allen warned that it sent out the wrong message to potential burglars.

The MP for Nottingham North said the decision bore no reality to the lives of victims of burglary.

"I am very much in support of community sentences where appropriate, but this sends a very bad signal to constituencies like mine that the ultimate sanction for first-time burglars is being removed.

"There has to remain the threat that any burglary can result in a prison sentence."

Rod Dalley, of the Police Federation said: "We are concerned at both the timing and message it sends to burglars who may not yet have done their Christmas shopping."

The Association of Chief Police Officers said the news would come as a shock to some victims of burglary, and would "strike fear" into others.

Lord Woolf, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said the new sentencing guidelines were intended to provide "better protection for the public and to result in some reduction in the use of custody".

The prison system, he said, was "grossly overcrowded" and statistics showed that relatively few people were put off crime by their first experience of jail.

Re-offending cost

Lord Woolf, sitting with Mr Justice Silber and Mr Justice Grigson, said the "staggering" cost to the criminal justice system of dealing with recorded crime by ex-prisoners was at least 11bn per year.

He said: "The public will benefit from this approach as it requires appropriate action to tackle offending behaviour. It will also result in a saving in the expense of imprisonment."

He emphasised that the new guidelines were subject to the circumstances of each offence, its effect on the victim and the record of the offender.

Currently a record 73,000
Already over capacity
Could rise to 110,000 by 2009, says Home Office
The judges' ruling came in test case appeals, in which they reduced prison sentences imposed for burglaries which were regarded as serious because of the facts of the crime and the offender's previous record.

Mark Leech, founder of the ex-offenders' charity Unlock, told BBC News: "We do not want to be writing people off at the ages of 15, 16 and 17 and making them into career criminals by tossing them into our over-crowded under-funded prisons where very little work can be done with them."

Community-based sentences allowed offenders to "put something back... rather than sitting on a prison bed for 23 hours a day twiddling their thumbs and getting the names and addresses of other criminals", he added.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said much burglary was committed by "appallingly mixed up" young people addicted to drugs like heroin and crack.

Lord Woolf
Prisons are too full to be effective, Lord Woolf said
But he warned that the new sentencing guidelines would be a "disaster" unless the government invested heavily in intensive drug treatment to prevent addicts re-offending.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said he agreed with Lord Woolf that prison was "ineffective" for most burglars, and that it should be reserved for aggravated cases.

A spokesperson for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) said: "There is the old adage that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.

"Jailing first time non-violent offenders might make sense if it meant that people saw the error of their ways and were less likely to re-offend on release. The figures show that it does not.

"But there needs to be consistence and clarity on this issue from politicians and the judiciary."

  The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Punishing more offenders in the community is controversial"
  Oliver Letwin, Shadow Home Secretary
"We need alternatives that actually work"
Should first-time burglars avoid jail?



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Talking Point: First time burglarsInside or out?
Should first-time burglars avoid jail?
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