End jail sentences for theft, top lawyer demands

Prison should never be used to deal with non-violent crimes like theft or fraud, one of the country's top lawyers has said.

In a pamphlet for the Howard League for Penal Reform, professor of English Law at Oxford University Andrew Ashworth said prison should be reserved for violent, threatening or sexual crimes.

"We should be reserving our most severe form of punishment for our most serious types of offending," he said.

"Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?"

The legal expert accepts that prison should still be considered for acquisitive crimes with an element of force, like robbery, blackmail and burglary, but insists it is inappropriate for crimes such as handling stolen goods or criminal damage.

The main purpose of the justice system in pure property crimes should instead be to ensure victims are adequately compensated for their losses, that perpetrators make amends for the harm they cause and that society shows its condemnation of the crime.

The change would also help victims by boosting their compensation.

The professor also rejects the idea that people should be given custodial cases where they have continually committed the crime, pointing out that there is no evidence to suggest a prison sentence at this stage would improve the rate of reoffending.

Ashworth points to crimes such as begging and soliciting for prostitution, which have not been punishable by prison sentences since 1982, no matter how many times the offences are caused.

Twenty-thousand people go to jail every year for theft or handling stolen goods- more than for any other crime.

Five-thousand go to jail for fraud and 1,000 for criminal damage.

Commuting prison sentences into compensation and community sentences would reduce the male prison population by eight per cent and the female population by 21%, as well as saving approximately £230 million each year.