Figures: Knife-carriers spared jail
Only one in five people caught carrying a knife is being jailed, figures show.
The number of offenders put behind bars fell from almost 1,600 two years ago to a little over 1,000 in the final three months of last year, despite guidelines saying the starting point for the lowest level of knife possession should be 12 weeks in jail.
But the number caught carrying knives also fell by 26%, with a 41% drop among youths, the Ministry of Justice figures for England and Wales showed.
In all, 5,151 offenders were caught in possession between October and December last year, down from 6,956 in the last quarter of 2008. These included 906 juveniles, compared with 1,528 two years earlier.
But only 20% of people caught with knives or offensive weapons were locked up, compared with 23% in the same period in 2008. A total of 1,012 offenders were jailed in the final quarter of last year, compared with 1,595 in 2008.
The Sentencing Guidelines Council told magistrates in August 2008 that a Court of Appeal judgment made clear they should sentence those convicted of possession at the top end of the range, with a 12-week starting point for the lowest-level offence.
Of those sent to custody, 32% were jailed for six months or more last year, up from 27% two years ago, with the average length of a sentence also increasing to 199 days from 175 days.
Meanwhile, a higher proportion of offenders walked free from court with either suspended or community sentences.
The figures showed the proportion of community sentences handed down for possession rose to 31% from 29%, while the proportion of suspended sentences was also up - from 11% to 13% - but the proportion of cautions handed out fell from 25% to 21%.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We need to send a strong message to those who carry knives. The Government's position is clear: any adult who commits a crime using a knife can expect to be sent to prison and serious offenders can expect a long sentence."