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

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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."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    274.Precariat Stealing is the Best Part of Capitalism isnt it, It worked for the US and Iraqs Oil?
    Yes but when the US and UK do it there is an excuse for national security. The same applies with money. If you and I make money it's called counterfeiting and is illegal. If the Government makes money it's called Quantative Easing and they charge us interest for it- something they have made legal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    Whether or not this suggestion would work won't make any difference whatsoever. No government would not put it into place because they'd be frightened of losing votes! Much more important of course!

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    Theft and burglary ARE serious crimes. Not only is it traumatising and a violation for the victim but every day, every one of us wastes minutes having to protect ourselves from this scum: finding car keys, closing windows on a hot day, losing keys - all necessary because these animals exist. Lock them up and lose the key.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    I think we just need to wait a while and not do anything rash. The UK will adopt Sharia law by the end of the next decade so thieves will have their hand(s) cut off. Very difficult to steal other peoples possessions when you've got no hands and the Prof will be happy as the thieves need not be sent to prison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.
    Even broke criminals can pay restitution. How? By working, like the rest of us.

    By working, inmates can fund the cost of their own incarceration, rather than billing their victims for their room, board and Xbox. Working trains inmates to support themselves after release, an alternative to crime. Many companies employ inmates for telephone work, eg: booking airline reservations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    The Prof will look after them, He then can rub their Tummy's better.

    Bless them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    How it happens in some oriental counties. Judge sentences an offender to get say 20 cane strokes. The execution is witnessed by a doctor. If after 5 strokes, doctor says "enough", execution stops and the offender is given a couple of weeks to recover. After that he is brought back to get the reset of his strokes. It can go on for months, or even years. Effective?

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    Any chance the BBC might feedback to the Professor the reaction of all the contributors? I doubt it because they are just as clueless and biased!!!

    A great day for burglars!

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    What a disgusting selfish thing to say!!!!!!!!!

  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    Thieves/fraudsters take more than valuables, they steal a sense of safety. Still, I doubt prison is effective for petty criminals: it's expensive, introduces them to harder criminals, and even gives them status.

    I'd like to see them forced to doubly compensate their victims and face punishment involving some form of public humiliation - nothing harmful, just something they'd hate to do twice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    This Ashworth bloke clearly thinks that prison it is to rehabilitate and should be fluffy & supportive.

    I believe that it should be to punish. It should be a truly horrible place where you are bored, confined & deprived of all but the basic necessities.

    You want rehabilitation?
    If it is unpleasant enough, criminals won't want to go back, will they?

    AND, if they are in, they can't commit crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Without proper punishment re-offending will continue, unfortunately our prison system is more of a holiday camp than punishment for most. Many learn new criminal skills inside rather than being made to work or learn skills useful to society. Why do we not give them training to find useful work when they are released? We must not forget the victims of these crimes though, we need punishments!

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    The professor is a loony. I've been burgled twice and i would have liked the perpetrators to have been sentenced to hard labour for ten years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    In medicine, progress is made by carrying our comparative trials and adopting best practice. This approach should be adapted to the process of managing crime and those who commit crime.

    There are many ideas which may be more effective than prison. Lets try some, find out what works, adapt and further refine the best ideas and reduce crime by doing the things which work best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    173. tagradh
    We suffer the consequences whatever the reason they became criminals, the fact is they are criminals and need to be isolated from society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    So we are supposed to just fine them. How do we do this with the majority of offenders being on the dole? Is he suggesting that they pay a £1 a week out of their dole, which of course is tax payers money. No way, let them do time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Off with their goolies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Sorry but... WT*!!?? Stick them in jail for as long as possible if they steal, what's wrong with these people

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    This is not about leftyism it's about reality. Some offenders such as predatory sex offenders should be banished to penal colonies for life, same for some orgainised criminals, petty offending though is not solved by prison, never has been. Inclusion in our society is the answer not, not exclusion!


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