MAGISTRATES’ courts in Northumberland and Tyneside send fewer people to prison than almost anywhere else in the country, new figures have shown.
The figures show that the number of North East offenders jailed by magistrates courts has halved in the last 10 years.
Courts in the Northumbria Police force area imposed immediate custody in just 1.6% of cases, the lowest in the country apart from Warwickshire.
Their increased use of community sentences has been praised by the Howard League of Penal Reform, which carried out the research and believes short custodial sentences do not work.
But concern was expressed by some victims of crime, who say it is vital to ensure community sentences are being enforced and that they still believe the “short, sharp shock” of prison can still be an effective tool.
The statistics reveal courts in areas such as Northamptonshire (6.5%) and Derbyshire (6.2%) are four times as likely as magistrates in Northumbria to send people to prison. The national average in 2011 was 3.8%.
Magistrates’ courts in the Northumbria force area gave 46,803 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 772 were custodial, a rate of 1.6%. In 2001 the figure was more then double at 4%.
In the Durham Constabulary area of 11,931 sentences, 3.1% were for immediate custody. Ten years ago, the figure was twice as high at 6.3%.
The maximum prison term a magistrates’ court can impose six months, or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said: “It is pleasing to see that magistrates’ courts are sending fewer people to prison overall than they have in the past.
“The figures for Northumbria show what can be achieved.
“A short-term prison sentence is a catastrophe for everyone. It does not help change the life of the person sentenced. It is likely to compound issues such as drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend.
“It costs the taxpayer a fortune and does nothing to help victims, who get no recompense or easing of trauma. Community sentences are much cheaper than custody and they deliver better results.
“They not only address a person’s offending, but allow them to access other services they need, such as help with drink, drugs or mental health problems.”
Ministry of Justice figures, meanwhile show short-term prison sentences are failing to cut crime. Only 36% of adults who began community orders between April 2010 and March 2011 went on to re-offend within a year. This compares with 58% of adults who completed a prison sentence of 12 months or less in the same period.
A survey conducted by the Howard League and the Prison Governors’ Association found that many prisoners preferred a short-term prison sentence to a community sentence as they were easier to complete. Others considered community sentences to be a greater punishment.
But Phil Butler, a senior consultant for community interest group Victim Care and the former senior Northumbria detective who ran as the Conservative candidate to be the force’s Police and Crime Commissioner said: “I think there is still room for the short, sharp shock of prison, as it is still the ultimate deterrent.
“Short sentences do work in a lot of cases, and can put people off offending for life. No matter what some people say prison is an horrendous experience for the offender and their families.
“It’s important magistrates always consider the full range of sentencing options and that community sentences are rigorously enforced so they are not an easy option.”
A short-term sentence does not help change the life of the person sentenced