Oxford professor rejects imprisonment for theft and fraud

Jail is not the place for thieves and fraudsters, says a professor from All Souls College.

Sophie Baggott
Sophie Baggott

Instead Prof Andrew Ashworth has proposed fines and community service as alternative sentencing for ‘pure property offences’ in a pamphlet published by the Howard League for Penal Reform. A jail sentence should be imposed only for violent, threatening, or sexual crimes, he suggested.

Released on 14 August 2013, this pamphlet is part of a ‘What if?’ series that aims to challenge conventional attitudes towards penal and criminal justice. Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, argued that imprisonment is disproportionate censure for ‘pure property offences’. He questioned: “Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?”

The professor told The Oxford Student that he had considered the victim in his reasoning and added that he had first-hand experience of street robbery. He recommended prioritising compensation for victims, which would be less likely from someone behind bars with little income if any. “Community sentences are both restrictive of liberty and constructive, and this needs to be more widely known” he said, but recognised the rarity of compensation being fully paid.

The Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Cook, commented: “At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it’s time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison.” BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Colman estimated that this alternative sentencing would mean almost 6000 fewer prisoners, which in turn would lead to annual savings of £230m.

Prof Ashworth said: “saving public money might be a bi-product of the proposals, but it is not the purpose.” In his paper, he points to the abolition of imprisonment for begging and soliciting for prostitution in 1982 as Parliament accepted that the severity of the offences did not warrant a deprivation of liberty. Prof Ashworth admitted exceptions to his stance, saying that if a victim was targeted due to vulnerability, a prison sentence may be worth consideration.

Stephanie Cherrill, a third-year lawyer in Corpus Christi College, commented: “I think the best thing about what Ashworth has said is that it feels like at the moment there’s no consensus about why we send people to prison and (as only he can) he has provided a neat categorisation that could fuel further discussion.” Nevertheless, Justice Minister Damian Green has denied that the government has any intention of changing the law.