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|Lord Chief Justice tells courts not to jail burglars
By Richard Ford, Home Correspondent
Times of London
December 20, 2002
IN AN attempt to reduce the record prison population, the Lord Chief Justice yesterday told judges and magistrates that burglars should not be sent to prison.
Lord Woolf urged the courts to give probation and community service sentences to thousands of burglars who would otherwise be jailed.Burglars facing a sentence of up to 18 months should not go to prison but be given a non-custodial sentence supervised by the probation service, he said.
Even when a prison sentence was imposed, Lord Woolf said it should be no longer than necessary.
The new guidelines were the Lord Chief Justices latest intervention intended to ease 20 per cent overcrowding in the 137 jails in England and Wales.
Lord Woolf, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, and the Attorney-General have all called this year for less use of custody as the prison population has soared. Yesterday the number of prisoners had fallen to 71,833 but the Prison Service fears it will rise again in January.
Lord Woolf said that the courts should initially impose a community sentence with conditions on criminals convicted of household burglary. He admitted that domestic burglary must always be regarded as a very serious offence but said that some burglars were entitled to more lenient treatment.
The guidelines, which come into effect immediately, were issued without publicity at the Appeal Court in London the day before the courts rise for Christmas and on the day that Parliament went into recess.
Lord Woolf made no effort to announce in advance that he was issuing controversial new guidance. Hilary Benn, the Prisons Minister, was told that the Lord Chief Justice would be issuing guidance on sentencing for domestic burglary but not the details. Last night no Home Office Minister was available to comment on the guidelines.
A first time burglar who enters a house causing no damage and stealing nothing will now receive a community penalty.
A first or second time burglar who steals electric goods or personal items, causing damage to the house, trauma to the victim and mess in the house would get a community penalty rather than nine to 18 months in jail.
A first time burglar who breaks into a house and steals goods of high value and does so when the victim is at home should receive a community punishment if the court plans an 18-month sentence.
But a second time offender carrying out such a burglary would receive a minimum two years in jail.
The Lord Chief Justice said the guidelines, issued when he and two fellow judges cut the sentences of two burglars at the Appeal Court, were an attempt to reverse the increasing use of jail for offenders convicted of burgling houses.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: We welcome this start to unload our overcrowded prisons.