Should non-violent criminals be in or out of jail?

Yesterday Professor Andrew Ashworth, the Vinerian professor of English law at Oxford University, published a pamphlet called What If Imprisonment Were Abolished for Property Offences?

In the pamphlet, which has been published by the Howard League for Penal Reform and is to be distributed to every magistrates’ court in England and Wales, Ashworth calls for an end to imprisonment for “pure property offences” – in other words, crimes that affect only property rights. Crimes which are violent, threatening or sexual in nature do not count as “pure property offences”, nor do crimes which violate rights other than property rights – for example, burglary of a home, which involves invasion of a person’s privacy.

Ashworth’s argument is that imprisonment is disproportionate for “pure property offences” such as theft and fraud, even when they are committed by repeat offenders. He argues that these crimes do no great harm – not that they are unimportant, but that people do not suffer greatly because of these crimes and, as such, they are less serious than violent, sexual or threatening offences. He also makes the point that victims are more likely to be able to get compensation from offenders who are not serving time behind bars.

Not unsurprisingly, there has been some outcry about these recommendations. The Government has been very clear that they will not be introducing such measures. Justice Minister Damian Green was quoted by the BBC as saying: “This government has no intention of changing the law to prevent judges sending [people who commit property crime] to prison.”

The Government’s dismissal of these proposals is not surprising, especially in a time when the nation seems to be in the mood to blame and punish people – blame immigrants for the lack of employment and “send them home”, blame the sick and disabled for the welfare bill and remove their benefits and, as widely reported in the news this week, blame children for needing to be in care and charge them for it (

But the truth is, sending criminals to jail is an expensive business – it costs around £40,000 per year to keep a criminal in jail (£37,163 per prisoner in 2010-2011, according Ministry of Justice figures) compared to only £2000 – £3000 per year for community service and rehabilitation orders.

Add to that the fact that jail doesn’t work: we are imprisoning more and more people each year and still re-offending rates continue to rise. Ministry of Justice figures show that around 46% of adults jailed in 2011 had at least 15 previous convictions or cautions.

In 2011 Dr Julie Trebilcock of Imperial College London published research based on interviews with 44 inmates serving sentences of less than 12 months and 25 members of prison staff. Trebilcock found that many offenders felt that a short prison sentence was preferable to and less of a punishment than a community sentence.

So, with prison costing more, being felt as less of a punishment and being unlikely to have any rehabilitative effect, is Ashworth so wrong to suggest that non-violent criminals be kept out of jail?

Emma Carr