Prison sentence 'disparity' warning

Prison officer opening a door in a prison
Image caption The Howard League says community sentences are cheaper than custody and deliver better results

Some magistrates' courts in England and Wales are four times more likely to send offenders to prison than others, a penal reform charity has said.

In 2011, Northamptonshire courts gave custodial sentences in 6.5% of cases, compared with 1.5% in Warwickshire, research by the Howard League shows.

It also found that 58% of adults who completed a prison sentence of less than a year in 2010-11 reoffended.

Ministers say greater supervision and rehabilitation will tackle the problem.

The Howard League, which is campaigning for more community sentences, obtained the sentencing data through a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Magistrates' courts can impose a maximum six-month prison term for a single offence and up to 12 months in total for more than one.

They handed down almost 1.2 million sentences during 2011, of which more than 46,000 were custodial.

'Postcode lottery'

The data reveals that, overall, the proportion of custodial sentences dropped over 10 years by 1% - from 4.8% in 2001, to 3.8%, in 2011.

But, while English magistrates' courts reduced the proportion of custodial sentences in that period, from 4.9% to 3.8%, Welsh courts showed a slight increase, from 4% to 4.3%.

BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Coleman said there was something of a postcode lottery in magistrates giving jail terms, with a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of the country.

The Howard League points out that only 36% of adults who began community orders between April 2010-March 2011 went on to reoffend - compared with 58% who went on to reoffend after being released from prison in the same period.

Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said it was "pleasing to see that magistrates' courts are sending fewer people to prison overall than they have in the past".

"However, one cannot ignore the striking disparity in sentencing trends between different criminal justice areas," she added.

She said a short-term prison sentence was "a catastrophe for everyone - it does not help change the life of the person sentenced.

"Indeed, it is likely to compound issues such as drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend."

She said prison sentences given out by magistrates "cost the taxpayer a fortune and it does nothing to help victims, who get no recompense or easing of trauma".

She added: "Community sentences are much cheaper than custody and they deliver better results.

"They not only address a person's offending, but allow them to access other services they need, such as help with drink, drugs or mental health problems."

In February, it was revealed that more than three-quarters of criminals sent to prison in England and Wales in 2011-2012 had at least one previous community sentence.

Campaign group the Centre for Crime Prevention - which obtained the data from the MoJ through a freedom of information request - said it highlighted what it sees as the failure of community penalties to stop reoffending.

In response, justice minister Jeremy Wright said it was "toughening up community sentences so every sentence contains a genuine punishment, including fines, unpaid work and strict curfews and exclusion zones".

He said reoffending rates were "unacceptably high - and are currently highest among those sentenced to short prison sentences.

"We are tackling this by changing the way we deal with offenders released after short sentences, so there is greater supervision and rehabilitation."

He added: "Prison does work."

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