Do not jail thieves and fraudsters, law professor says

A thief breaks into a car during a mock-up by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in Belfast, Monday November 21, 2005. The priority after thefts should be compensation or reparation for the victim, Prof Ashworth said

Related Stories

Thieves and fraudsters should not be jailed, a legal expert has said.

In a pamphlet released by the Howard League for Penal Reform, Prof Andrew Ashworth said jail should be reserved for offenders who commit crimes of a violent, sexual or threatening nature.

Fines and community sentences would be more effective for others and reduce the prison population in England and Wales by almost 6,000, he said.

But the government said it had "no intention" of changing the law.

Distributed to courts

Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, who advised the judiciary on sentencing between 1999 and 2010, said prison should still be considered in cases of robbery, blackmail and burglary.

But for "pure property offences", including theft, handling of stolen goods, criminal damage and fraud, imprisonment was disproportionate, he said.

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

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

"Instead, the priority should be to deal with such offences in the community, giving precedence to compensation or reparation for the victim and, where the offence is sufficiently serious, imposing a community sentence."

He also argued against imprisoning repeat, non-violent offenders.

prison officer closing gates Nearly 20,000 people were jailed for theft and handling stolen goods in 2012

However, Prof Ashworth told BBC Breakfast that he did support prison sentences for property offences in "exceptional circumstances", such as multi-million pound frauds.

BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Colman said some 20,000 people a year go to prison for theft or handling stolen goods - more than for any other crime.

Making those who commit such crimes compensate victims or serve community sentences instead would reduce the prison population by nearly 6,000, saving approximately £230m each year, our correspondent added.

The Howard League plans to distribute the pamphlet, entitled "What if imprisonment were abolished for property offences?" to every magistrates' court in England and Wales in an attempt to spark a debate on sentencing issues.

Frances Crook, the Howard League's chief executive, said: "When it comes to crimes like theft and fraud, victims are losing out from a justice system that too often prioritises putting the perpetrator behind bars rather than returning people's stolen property and providing much needed compensation."

'Untold misery'

Ms Crook added: "At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it's time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison."

But a spokesman for Victim Support said the type of crime was not a reliable indicator of the impact an offence had had on a 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," he said.

"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."

And Justice Minister Damian Green said: "People who commit these crimes devastate lives and cause untold misery in our communities.

"This government has no intention of changing the law to prevent judges sending them to prison. It is right they have the full range of sentencing options available to them."


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 930.

    He claims that COMMUNITY WORK has toughened up - not according to feedback from police and offenders.

    Who is going to pay compensation when they are out of work ?

    There are a number of reasons people reoffend and the biggest being they are pushed out onto the streets with little support.

    A charity has proven that if given help to find housing instead of hostel accommodation, it falls greatly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 913.

    How about the system they use in USA.
    Three strikes (serious offences) and its LIFE imprisonment.

    For purely financial crimes, theft fraud etc. Why not seize the criminals assets to TWICE the amount stolen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 902.

    Petty theft shouldn't result in prison, it sets some up from a lifetime of offending. Instead we should take the value of what they stole coupled with the court costs and the resulting amount should be divided by a hourly rate. Thus resulting in the total amount of hours the thief should spend cleaning public toilets/parks/streets and other services that have been axed with spending cuts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 786.

    I agree. To punish a petty thief the same as a paedophile is ridiculous.

    Many people are in jail for a theft committed out of pure desperation, but we call all thieves the same. A one off crime where no one was hurt should not a criminal record make either. I know several good people held back from good jobs because of one mistake in their youth. Yet to proper criminals, a record means nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    It is doubtful that prison helps, and punishment for punishment's sakes is wrong, but at least when they are in prison they won't be commiting any fraud or theft for the duration. If anybody can come up with a better solution brilliant.
    If I'm a victim of fraud or theft then I don't consider it to be a "nothing" offence.


Comments 5 of 9


More UK stories



  • A very clever little girlBrain gain

    Why are people getting better at intelligence tests?

  • BeefaloBeefalo hunt

    The hybrid animal causing havoc in the Grand Canyon

  • A British Rail signBringing back BR

    Would it be realistic to renationalise the railways?

  • Banksy image of girl letting go of heart-shaped balloonFrom the heart

    Fergal Keane on the relationship between love and politics

  • Don Roberto Placa Quiet Don

    The world's worst interview - with one of the loneliest men on Earth

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.