Don't Jail Criminals If Prisons Are Full; Clarke under Fire over Astonishing New Advice for Judges and Magistrates

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Byline: DAVID HUGHES;MATTHEW HICKLEY

JUDGES have been told to avoid jailing offenders if prisons are full.

New legislation will require courts to take prison capacity into account when sentencing.

With jails already packed, the guidance from new Home Secretary Charles Clarke means increasing numbers of criminals will end up doing some kind of community service instead.

The Tories seized on the measure as an act of capitulation by the Government and an admission that its prisons policy was failing.

The retreat comes in the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill, published yesterday. It was said to extend 'the remit of the Sentencing Guidelines Council to include consideration of the capacity of the correctional services'.

Baroness Scotland, the Minister for Criminal Justice, claimed: 'The measures in the Bill will ensure that sentences are managed with a consistency and rigour that will really challenge the individual offender to change their ways and lead a law-abiding life on the conclusion of that sentence.' But the small print of the Bill makes it clear the sentence is now less likely to involve imprisonment.

At present, courts are not expected to take any account of space available in prisons when they pass sentence.

The measure means guidelines sent to judges and magistrates will for the first time force them to consider prison overcrowding.

Tory home affairs spokesman David Davis said: 'This is an admission by Government that their prison policy has failed. …