UK & World News
Don't Send Thieves To Prison, Says Law Expert
Thieves and fraudsters should be spared jail and punished with fines and community sentences instead, a legal expert has said.
Law professor Andrew Ashworth believes imprisonment for "pure property offences", including those who continually commit such crimes, is disproportionate.
He said the focus should be on making sure perpetrators make amends and that victims are compensated - which he argued was less likely from someone behind bars with little or no income.
Prison, as the UK's most severe punishment, should be reserved for the most serious crimes only including those of a violent, threatening or sexual nature, he said.
His comments are in a pamphlet titled What If Imprisonment Were Abolished For Property Offences? which has been released by the Howard League for Penal Reform which plans to distribute it to every magistrates' court in England and Wales in a bid to spark a debate on sentencing issues.
Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, said while prison should still be considered in cases of robbery, blackmail and burglary, its use is disproportionate for crimes that do not involve violence, threats or sexual assault.
According the professor, prison sentences are only truly worth considering where a victim is targeted because of their vulnerability, although there may be some exceptions.
His pamphlet states that some 20,000 people go to prison each year for theft or handling stolen goods, 5,000 for fraud and 1,000 for criminal damage.
The effect of such a policy would reduce the number of men serving prison sentences by 8% (5,000 men) and women by 21% (700 women), saving around £230m each year, it claims.
A spokesman for Victim Support said: "Victims tell us they want more than anything else the punishment to fit the crime and for the criminal not to re-offend.
"A community sentence may be appropriate in some instances of property crime but not in others because crime type is not a reliable indicator of the impact an offence has on an individual victim.
"It would be hard for community sentences to retain public confidence if offenders knew they could keep committing certain types of crime and never be jailed.
"It is essential when passing sentence that judges and magistrates can take into account the full facts of the case - including the impact on the victim - not just the nature of the offence."