Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 17:31 UK

'No room' in jail for fraudster

George Munce (pic: Perthshire Picture Agency)
George Munce would normally have been sent to jail for the offence

A benefits cheat has avoided jail after a sheriff said there was no room for him in Scotland's overcrowded prisons.

Sheriff Lindsay Foulis told George Munce his community service sentence had been influenced by the fact inmate numbers were reaching "crisis point".

Munce, 46, from Auchterarder, had fraudulently claimed almost 10,000 of benefit cash by claiming he was single.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill denied that any direction had been sent out to judges.

Munce admitted that between April 2004 and July 2006 he fraudulently obtained 9,500 income support from the Department of Work and Pensions.

Sheriff Foulis ordered him to carry out 240 hours of community service.

He was also told to pay the money back - but was given 20 years to do so at 10 per week.

We are told that prison populations are reaching crisis point
Sheriff Lindsay Foulis

The sheriff told Munce's lawyer: "He can consider himself fortunate, but in light of certain matters we keep trying to bring to the attention of the press with regard to certain numbers, I am prepared to deal with this by way of community service.

"Previously I would have had no hesitation in taking your client's liberty away from him. I should make it plain the maximum community service is imposed as a direct alternative to custody.

"We are told that prison populations are reaching crisis point and as a result - for a matter which I consider you well merit a custodial sentence - I am going to deal with it by way of the direct alternative."

On Wednesday, the Auditor General for Scotland Robert Black warned MSPs that Scotland's prison population had risen above safe limits.

And last week the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, Mike Ewart, warned that jails were in a state of emergency, with overcrowding putting the country at risk.

The prison service said it was just two inmates short of the safe limit, given by the Auditor General, of 8,126.

The government respects the complete independence of the judiciary
Kenny MacAskill

Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, blamed Mr MacAskill.

"His government's refusal to get on with the job of adding more capacity to the prison estate is at the heart of this mess," he said.

"My message to Kenny MacAskill is clear - tell the finance secretary, John Swinney, you need more money to build new prisons now before this crisis gets even worse."

Conservative justice spokesman Bill Aitken said: "Sheriffs should deal with each case as it is presented to them, and it is absolutely outrageous and indeed dangerous that a sheriff has to concede that sentencing policy is being influenced by lack of prison places.

"We should be sending out a message that crime deserves to be punished, not dismissed."

Mr MacAskill said: "It is for the sheriff to make a decision based on all the facts he has before him, including the requirement to protect the public.

"The SPS has a statutory obligation to receive prisoners sentenced to a period of custody and that remains the case.

"The government respects the complete independence of the judiciary - that is one of its key strengths."

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