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 907.

    "Do not jail thieves and fraudsters"

    Right; because then most of our politicians would be behind bars. Not that I see anything wrong with that, of course...

  • Comment number 906.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 905.

    In the scenario you describe, It is certainly discriminatory and an example of institutional racism. Whether it is a necessary evil is an entirely different question.

  • rate this

    Comment number 904.

    So a black guy and a white guy go for the same position, the black guy gets it because the company is forced to employ x amount of black guys to fill a quota. Isnt that racism towards the white guy?"

    Yes, that's why quotas and "positive discrimination" towards minorities are illegal in this country (unlike, say, the USA).

  • rate this

    Comment number 903.

    Prison is to take lawbreakers out of society to protect society from them; it's not about them, it's about whether the rest of use have a right to live in peace.
    So ... what’s the answer?
    In the good 'ol days, over century and a half ago, capital punishment was administered with gay abandon for even minor crimes such a petty theft.
    Guess what?
    Homicide was at its highest EVER!

  • 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 901.

    " Banned
    I stick by my original assertion - most people in the UK are not racist"

    You've not met more than handful of people who have made some sort of generalisation about an individual based upon perceived characteristics of the racial group they might belong to, even if not intending to be malevolent? You must live a very isolated existence as I'm sure most of us have done that sometime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 900.

    Some examples to try and clarify -

    Theft e.g. nicking a bike parked on the street, or someones wallet you found at the pub with cash inside.

    Robbery e.g. making someone hand over their wallet/purse under threat of a battering if they don't.

    Burglary e.g. breaking into someone's home/factory/caravan (any building) to steal what's inside.

    Aggravated burglary e.g. as above but with a weapon...

  • rate this

    Comment number 899.


    So a black guy and a white guy go for the same position, the black guy gets it because the company is forced to employ x amount of black guys to fill a quota. Isnt that racism towards the white guy?

    This comment will get deleted because a) some will consider "black guy" racist b) some will consider "black guy" "white guy" is likely to disrupt/provoke or c) it's "otherwise objectionable"

  • rate this

    Comment number 898.

    @880.Mao Zedong in Cheek

    I made no reference to the past or the church.

    I stated social morals have declined, too few in these situations have been raised properly. Steeling is wrong no matter what and lets be clear, we're not talking about a starving child that stole some bread. Visit any criminal court and the vast majority of time is being consumed by these moronic criminals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 897.

    888. Mao Zedong in Cheek
    Why what colour are you now?


    White and proud.... oops s'pose this post will be taken off too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 896.

    889 ahwasright - his comment was satirical.

    Sounds unlikely

  • rate this

    Comment number 895.

    yes I can just see it now. bob diamond cleaning the streets!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 894.

    The only person I heard use that phrase was one of the people I was thinking on the fingers of one hand - a very unpleasant woman. Other than that I stick by my original assertion - most people in the UK are not racist - there is a complete pre-occupation with this issue - gay rights etc -with the left which is completely and utterly divisive and ultimately - totally counter productive

  • rate this

    Comment number 893.

    I agree that alternatives to prison are more appropriate in many cases.

    But ommunity service' is only going to be credible if people actually see it in action.

    It has to involve things like litter picking and infrastructure repair work, in uniform showing clearly that they are on Community Service.

    They should have jackets with CS stamped on them, and go to prison if they add an 'i'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 892.

    Should thieves and fraudsters be jailed?

    Hello BBC, can we have another forum: Should Spain refuse the brits with their inability to speak a word in Spanish to enter their territory?

  • rate this

    Comment number 891.

    Sticks and stones can brake bones but names can never hurt me.

    Racists should be locked up in white only Prisons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 890.

    Totally agree with, you have a least one foot in the 21st centry.

    "...but I expect..." your expectation are wrong, I am against all discrimination.

    "...count on the fingers of one hand those who are genuinely racist" I disagree (might need two hands), but I have never condemned anyone as racist, I only condemn racism. Hate the sin, love the sinner.


  • Comment number 889.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 888.


    The only crime these days is to hold slightly right-wing views and coupled with been white


    Why what colour are you now? Are you doing a reverse-MJ?


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