Reid urges courts to jail fewer criminals

The home secretary has urged the courts to send fewer criminals to jail, saying prisons are an “expensive resource” that should not be wasted on non-dangerous offenders.

John Reid’s comments come as the prison population topped 80,000 on Monday, forcing hundreds of prisoners to be held in emergency accommodation in police cells.

A new prison is due to open in the spring, providing 350 places, but this will do little to ease the immediate pressure on the jail population. Places for a further 8,000 offenders are being planned, but will not be in use until 2012.

Mr Reid announced operation safeguard – which allows the use of police cells – in the autumn as an emergency measure, but last night he sought also to remind the courts that they should only be sending the most dangerous offenders to jail.

“It is necessary to a civilised society that those who are danger to our society are put away. The public have a right to expect protection from violent and dangerous offenders,” he said.

He added: “However, we should not be squandering taxpayers money to monitor non-dangerous and less serious offenders. Non-dangerous offenders should be saving the community money, not costing it money.

“Offenders should be paying back through to the community through enforced work, payback and community service, thus saving the taxpayers cost of prison places and the council tax payer the expense of further clean up.”

Mr Reid’s comments come the day after the Magistrates Association warned that criminal justice reforms, including the move towards handing out fines rather than taking people to court, was based on “a financial rather than a judicial solution to crime”.

Shadow home secretary David Davis described the government’s latest approach to cutting the prison population as “outrageous”.

“Yet again we see the public are being put at risk by the failure of ministers,” he said.

“Offenders who should be sent to jail won’t be, and all because the government failed to listen to our and other calls to address the lack of prison capacity over the last few years.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg added: “In the litany of government failures in home affairs, the prison overcrowding crisis ranks among the worst.”

He said: “There is a strong case to review the mix of offenders sent to prison, but these short-term panic fixes will provide nothing but temporary sticking plaster solutions to a much deeper crisis.”