Ministers are today being warned that they could risk “unleashing a crime wave” if a planned policy to scrap short prison sentences runs into trouble.
Thousands of repeat offenders could be spared prison every year under the Government’s plans to abolish jail terms of six months or less, except for violent and sexual crimes, according to a newly-published report.
It comes after Justice Secretary David Gauke last week declared there was a “very strong case” for scrapping the short jail terms.
Prisons Minister Rory Stewart also backed the move, which is being explored as part of efforts to reduce the prison population and drive down re-offending.
Read more: More than 220 small business owners across Yorkshire write to their MPs to demand a People’s Vote
But a study by think-tank Civitas, published today, claims it would amount to an “amnesty for prolific thieves and burglars”, leaving the public at greater risk of crime. Around 34,000 offenders who were jailed in 2017 would receive non-custodial punishments under the proposed new regime, according to the paper.
The figure includes thieves, burglars, drink-drivers, fraudsters, and those caught with knives or drugs.
The Civitas report, written by Peter Cuthbertson, founder of the Centre for Crime Prevention, says: "If Rory Stewart is wrong, the consequences for public safety could be enormous, with the Government unleashing a crime wave on hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Read more: The £10bn tidal barrier that could be built to combat climate change
"In reality, his own department's data makes clear that it would mean tens of thousands more hardened criminals avoiding prison.
"The Government must now consider the evidence, rather than proceed any further with plans for an effective amnesty for burglars, shoplifters and other prolific criminals."
Mr Gauke signalled a departure from the Tory "prison works" mantra as he unveiled his vision for "smart justice" last week.
Short custodial terms would be replaced by "robust" community orders under the blueprint, which has been backed by penal reform campaigners.
The Justice Secretary cited figures showing that over a quarter of all re-offending is committed by people who served sentences of 12 months or less.
Read more: This is how many Humberside Police officers are now trained to use Tasers
A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesman said: "It would be wrong to spend taxpayers' money doing what we know doesn't work - and the evidence is clear that short sentences often do more harm than good.
"They fail to rehabilitate many offenders and lead to high rates of reoffending, which actually makes us less safe and more likely to be a victim of crime.
"That is why we are exploring more stringent and enforceable community sentences - but this work is ongoing and we've reached no conclusions at this time."
Burglary, drug possession and possession of a knife offences are triable "either way" - meaning they can be tried at either the Crown Court or a magistrates' court- and will therefore still attract custody where a longer sentence is merited, the ministry noted.
It added that an MoJ study published in 2015 found that custodial sentences of under 12 months were associated with higher levels of re-offending than sentences given to similar offenders that were served in the community.