Thousands Of Addicts To Avoid Prison

Thousands more thieving drug addicts, alcoholics and wife beaters should escape jail, John Reid has ordered. The Home Secretary, exposing his own tough rhetoric on law and order as a sham, also wants to downgrade hundreds more offences so they can be punished with a fine only.

The courts, he demanded, must show more ‘self-imposed restraint’ over the punishments they hand down.

Too many offenders are being sent to jail when they should escape with a community penalty, he said.

This must end in order to ‘stabilise’ the prison population – a comment which suggests a return to the policy of sparing people custody rather than building more jails.

Even community punishments are being over-used, Mr Reid said. Instead, around 3,400 offenders given the penalty each year will in future get nothing more than a fine.

Offences to be downgraded to carrying a financial penalty only could include driving without insurance, careless driving, speeding, being drunk and disorderly and sending hate mail.

Critics accused the Home Secretary – who has repeatedly promised to ‘re-balance’ the justice system in favour of the victim – of going soft.

It came as separate Government figures revealed two out of every three convicts released from prison is reconvicted within just two years.

The shocking statistic has not improved over recent years – despite hundreds of millions of pounds being poured into keeping freed offenders on the straight and narrow.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: ‘Community punishments can serve a purpose but only if they are properly enforced and applied to appropriate offenders. They should not simply be used as a means to keep prisoners out of jail as a consequence of Labour’s prison crisis.’

Mr Reid’s announcement yesterday was billed as being for tougher sentencing for the country’s most dangerous offenders, including murderers and rapist.

He duly unveiled proposals to give judges more discretion over how long they will remain behind bars – but admitted it would keep only 110 extra convicts locked-up at any one time.

But, in the same consultation document, he took an extraordinary swipe at the courts for sending too many convicts down.

The courts, it says, are ‘not using community orders as fully as they might’. Criminals currently given shorter jail sentences should instead get community orders.

Those the Government has in mind are people who it claims can be better rehabilitated in the community. Mr Reid’s junior minister, Baroness Scotland, said this category of offenders includes those guilty of domestic violence and prolific criminals trying to fund addictions to drugs or alcohol.

The document adds that embattled probation staff are being swamped with offenders given community orders.

The courts should show more ‘self-imposed restraint’ and give around 3,400 each year fines instead.

To guarantee this happens, Mr Reid plans to downgrade more than 1,000 non-imprisonable crimes so they carry fines only.

In addition to a raft of motoring crimes, they include causing racially aggravated harm, alarm and distress, disorder, failure to give a specimen of breath, throwing missiles at a football match and kerb-crawling.

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said: ‘Yet again, the Government is more interested in saving money that protecting the public.

‘The place for people who commit serious and persistent crimes is in prison, but the Government has lost its way. Instead of knee-jerk policies that do not work, we need thousands more police on the streets and at least an extra eight prisons.’

Retired judge Keith Matthewman QC, said: ‘The Government does not want to send people to prison because of the cost of building more prisons.

‘Criminals are not a bit frightened by community penalties. They prefer them and want them because while they are out and free they can go on committing more crimes.

‘The only bit of punishment that has an effect whatsoever is prison. This Government never gives any thought to the victims, it is all about helping the criminal. If an offence is serious enough, in particular burglary, then whether they are on drugs or not, they have to go to prison.’

The reconviction rate for criminals given a prison sentence is almost 66 per cent within two years of release, the Home Office said yesterday.

For community penalties, it is more than 53 per cent, and for the Government’s flagship drug treatment and testing orders, nine out of ten re-offend.

The crimes with the worst two-year reconviction rates are theft from cars (84 per cent), theft (77 per cent) and burglary (73 per cent).

The report made the key admission that longer jail sentences are the most effective deterrent.

It says: ‘Re-offending rates are lower among offenders discharged from a custodial sentence of at least a year than among those discharged from a longer custodial sentence.’

The documet listed a series of people who should not be in jail, including those with a mental illnbess and ‘vulnerable’ women. It also called for more crime suspects to be bailed wearing tags, rather than be remanded to custody.

The prolific offenders addicted to alcohol and drugs who are likely to be spared jail include burglars and thieves.