The Howard League for Penal Reform has today (14 August 2013) released a landmark pamphlet "What if imprisonment were abolished for property offences?" by one of Britain’s leading criminal lawyers, Professor Andrew Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, calling for the abolition of imprisonment for pure property offences.

He argues that prison, as our most severe punishment, should only be used for the most serious crimes: those of a violent, threatening or sexual nature. Consequently, much as he believes prison should still be considered in cases of robbery, blackmail and burglary, its use is disproportionate for crimes that don't involve violence, threats or sexual assault. Such offences include theft, handling of stolen goods, criminal damage and fraud.

Prof Ashworth believes that the priority in dealing with pure property crimes should be to ensure victims are adequately compensated for their losses, perpetrators make amends for the harm they cause and society shows our condemnation of the crime. Rather than incarcerating those who commit these offences, Prof Ashworth believes fines and community sentences will be more effective and proportionate responses that do not require a total loss of liberty.

He suggests that many victims would be better off from this approach, as they are less likely to receive compensation for their loss of property from someone behind bars with little or no income.

Prof Ashworth entertains the idea of exceptions to his position, but thought a prison sentence only truly worth considering where a victim had been targeted because of their vulnerability. Cases involving thefts in breach of trust, such as when a postman steals from the mail, are also discussed. Prof Ashworth rejects the idea that, in such a situation, dismissal from employment, civil action to recover the stolen property and a community sentence would either be less of a deterrent than custody or be any less of a sign of society’s condemnation of the crime.

Similarly, he rejects the idea that people who continually commit property offences should eventually be imprisoned, given that the offence remains non-violent, non-threatening and non-sexual and that there is no evidence to suggest prison would be a more effective punishment for such a person. Prof Ashworth points to crimes such as begging and soliciting for prostitution, for which, since 1982, prison can never be used, irrespective of how many times the offences have been committed.

Bedford prison by Dennis Simpson via Wikimedia Commons

Bedford prison by Dennis Simpson via Wikimedia Commons

The effect such a policy would have on prisons would be profound. 20,000 people go to prison each year for theft or handling stolen goods (more than for any other crime), 5,000 for fraud and 1,000 for criminal damage. Giving people who commit these crimes financial penalties to compensate victims and community sentences rather than custody would reduce the sentenced male prison population by 8 per cent (5,000 men) and sentenced female prison population by 21 per cent (700 women), saving approximately £230 million each year.

Professor Andrew Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, 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? 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.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, 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. This can be achieved through fines and compensation orders, as well as community sentences, which produce a much lower rate of reoffending than prison at a fraction of the cost. 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.”

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