Community sentence plan 'will not cut jail numbers'

Prisoner in cell The coalition government wants to reduce the prison population

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A leading magistrate has cast doubt on the effectiveness of government plans to cut prisoner numbers by introducing more community penalties.

The justice secretary has said community orders should replace short-term jail terms for petty offences.

But Magistrates' Association of England and Wales chairman John Thornhill said many offenders were already jailed for serial breaches of such orders.

The Ministry of Justice said the orders would be enforced effectively.

Repeat offenders

Mr Thornhill, who is based in Liverpool, told BBC Radio 4's The Report: "We have to be concerned as how effective these community penalties and community orders are going to be.

"Many of the offenders that we deal with have committed a large number of offences, they've failed to comply with any previous prison sentences and they're back in the courts again, so what do we do with them?

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Thursday 22 July 2010 at 2000 BST

"A number of the offenders that we send to prison are those who have been given community orders and community penalties, but have failed to comply two, three or four times, so they end up being put in a position where we have no choice as magistrates but to send them to custody."

Mr Thornhill said tougher community orders were needed for those who repeatedly breach community orders, adding: "We'd welcome the idea of having them and we're ready to use them and see how effective they are."

Drugs problem

Another magistrate, who did not want to be named, told the BBC there were four main issues surrounding community orders.

Firstly, the magistrate doubted that the programme would have adequate resources.

He said: "Secondly, will the defendant do it? Are we going to give community orders to people who previously failed to complete them? If you tell me to do it, I'll do it, but it won't address offending.

"Many who get community orders will end back in front of me and land themselves in prison anyway because they simply won't do the orders.

"The problem is a very large group of defendants either are incapable or don't care or lead such chaotic lifestyles because they're off their heads on drink or drugs."

He said a third problem was the lack of effective "enforcement mechanisms" and the fourth issue was that: "Community sentences do not protect society from the worst repeat offenders as they are insufficient as a deterrent."

A Ministry of Justice statement said: "We want to bring an end to the illusion that putting more and more people into custody makes people safer - if our current prison system is failing to rehabilitate offenders, we are not making people safer.

"Incarcerating more offenders but denying them effective rehabilitation, letting them out early only to lock them up again six months later is not effective policy, but it's an expensive policy.

"However, if an offender fails to comply with a court order, probation staff will have no hesitation in returning them to court to be re-sentenced or given additional punishment. Compliance and rigorous enforcement of community orders are essential if community supervision is to provide an effective punishment and maintain the public's confidence."

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