Community sentence 'no soft option'
Plans to increase the use of community service for offenders is not a soft option for law breakers, the Minister for Justice has said.
David Ford confirmed that legislation to be brought before the Assembly next year will encourage the greater use of community sentences.
He said that while over 40% of those who serve short prison terms reoffend, the figure for those handed community service was lower at 25%.
"The statistics underline the success rate of community sentences in breaking the cycle of crime," said Mr Ford.
"Some 75% of adult offenders who receive a community sentence do not go on to commit further crime over the next 12 months. Compare this with the statistics on reoffending rates for those who serve short prison sentences, and the figures speak for themselves."
The minister met members of the Probation Service in Londonderry, plus offenders undertaking community sentences. He rejected any criticism that they are a soft option for those who have broken the law.
"Custody should be used to protect society from the most dangerous criminals who pose a risk to the public," he said. "In cases where offenders do not pose a risk, I want to encourage the use of community sentences rather than short prison sentences.
"Community sentences, where an offender can repay his debt to society by working on projects serving the community under the supervision of Probation Service staff, have proved to be more effective in reducing reoffending."
Mr Ford said the Faster Fairer Justice Bill will include provisions on community sentences being the preferred method of dealing with offenders convicted for less serious offences, who would otherwise get custodial sentences of three months or less as recommended in the Owers Report on prison reform.
The minister said: "Sentencing in the individual case must remain a matter for an independent judiciary and under these proposals, judges would still be able to sentence an offender to custody if they consider it appropriate."