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Magistrates in Hampshire are more than twice as likely to send someone to prison as courts in some other parts of the country, according to figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
New research by the charity shows that people who have been convicted of a crime in England and Wales face a postcode lottery when they are sentenced.
They say growing number of magistrates' benches are making good use of community sentences which reduce crime and help people to turn their lives around but some are still imposing prison sentences in cases where they are unnecessary.
The statistics show courts in Hampshire imposed custodial sentences in 3.9 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011 - more often than areas such as Warwickshire (1.5 per cent) and Northumbria (1.6 per cent). The national average was 3.8 per cent. Magistrates courts in Hampshire handed down 35,025 sentences to men, women and children during 2011, of which 1,375 were custodial. Overall, magistrates in England and Wales reduced their use of custody by a quarter between 2001 and 2011.
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:
"It is pleasing to see that magistrates' courts are sending fewer people to prison overall than they have in the past. However, one cannot ignore the striking disparity in sentencing trends between different criminal justice areas.
"A short-term prison sentence is a catastrophe for everyone. It does not help change the life of the person sentenced - indeed, it is likely to compound issues such as drug addiction and make them more likely to reoffend. It costs the taxpayer a fortune and it does nothing to help victims, who get no recompense or easing of trauma.
"A court which imposes short prison sentences increases the likelihood of local people becoming victims of crime, because the failure rate is so high.
"Community sentences are much cheaper than custody and they deliver better results. They not only address a person's offending, but allow them to access other services they need, such as help with drink, drugs or mental health problems."
The Howard League says the statistics have been published as Ministry of Justice figures show that short-term prison sentences are failing to cut crime. Only 36 per cent of adults who began community orders between April 2010 and March 2011 went on to reoffend within a year. This compares with 58 per cent of adults who completed a prison sentence of 12 months or less during the same period.
A survey, conducted by the Howard League and the Prison Governors' Association, found that many prisoners preferred a short-term prison sentence to a community sentence because they were easier to complete. Others considered community sentences to be a greater punishment than prison.