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JAIL terms of less than a year should be abolished in favour of softer community sentences, prison bosses will urge today.

Such a move would allow many burglars, thieves, drug abusers and violent offenders to escape custodial sentences.

Victims groups last night hit out at the proposals which have been put forward by the Prison Governors Association in an attempt to ease overcrowding in jails.

Neil Atkinson, of the National Victims’ Association, said: “Our charity believes that we should be increasing prison sentences and not decreasing them. If there is a national shortage of prison places that suggests that we need to build some new prisons.”

Retailers also fear that without the threat of prison serial shoplifters will see it as open season for a crime that costs the industry £2billion a year.

Richard Dodd, of the British Retail Consortium, said: “It’s important that we have the ultimate sanction of a prison sentence for those offenders who steal repeatedly and those who use violence.”

There are 84,354 people locked up in prisons in England and Wales, official figures show, leaving many jails overcrowded. With an estimated 60,000 inmates serving short sentences at any one time, prison chiefs believe scrapping terms of 12 months and less would free up space for more serious offenders.

Paul Tidball, chairman of the Prison Governors Association, will today address its annual conference, urging ministers to launch a radical review of sentencing policy and scrap all jail terms shorter than 12 months.

He will say the record rise in the prison population represents a failure of the Government’s penal policy which could in turn lead to “widespread disorder” within the prisons system.

Mr Tidball will tell the conference: “For prisons to become less effective with reducing re-offending is tragic enough, and against the interests of our society and the taxpayer, but the potential catastrophe of widespread disorder resulting from foolhardy cuts takes the debate to another level.”

Paddy Scriven, general secretary of the association, said yesterday there was little evidence that short prison sentences worked.

Cells could be put to better use housing more serious offenders for longer terms, she said. Prisons were being used as a “dumping ground” for people with drug problems and mental health issues.

She said of the plans: “It would free up the prison service to concentrate on the people we ought to be concentrating on, such as serious offenders who the public feel should be getting longer ­sentences.

“It would also allow the prison service to concentrate on the job of getting people to the stage where they will not re-offend when they are released.” Tory justice spokesman Dominic Grieve said: “Gordon Brown failed to provide enough prison capacity, first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister.

“The answer to the current overcrowding crisis is to build enough prison places.”

Victims’ spokesman Mr Atkinson said: “We recognise there are undoubtedly large numbers of people currently in prison who probably should be in other institutions.

“However where people’s lives have been affected by crime and in particular violent crime, we feel that the general public are fed up with weak and inadequate prison sentences.”

Retailers’ spokesman Mr Dodd said: “For retailers shop-lifting is a serious offence which needs to be treated seriously. There are very substantial financial costs which filter down to the customers and there are very real human costs for shop staff on the receiving end of abuse and sometimes violence when they try to stop criminals.” continues here

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