The average jail sentence for robbery in 2005 dropped to its lowest level since 1998, the latest Home Office figures have revealed.
Robbers were given 35 months in jail on average compared with 38.4 in the previous year, and 39.3 in 2003 when sentences were at their peak, the statistics showed today
The figures also revealed that the overall number of people jailed in England and Wales fell to its lowest level for seven years in that year, with 101,200 offenders imprisoned compared to 106,300 in the previous year.
It comes at a time when the prisons are full to overcrowding with just over 80,000 inmates registered.
Jail sentences for violence against the person fell by 12 months in 2005 to 17.8 years, compared with an average of 18.8 in both of the previous two years.
There were also shorter jail terms handed out for criminal damage (15.1 months on average, down from 16.7) and drug offences (down to 35.8 months from 37.3).
The number of fines imposed by the courts also fell during the year. Following a peak of 1,082,700 in 2004, the overall number fell by 5% to 1,025,100.
However, sentences for sexual offences and forgery showed a rise.
The Home Office, however, said the continuing fall in robbery imprisonment levels during 2005 was due to the introduction of "intermediate sentences" which led to a natural drop in the amount of time given.
"What appears to be a slight reduction from 35.3 to 35 months between 1998 and 2005 is down to the impact of indeterminate public protection sentences on the calculation of average sentence length," a spokeswoman said.
"Offenders who now receive an IPP - and many convicted of robbery will do - would previously have received a lengthy determinate sentence, that would have been included in the calculation of average custodial sentence lengths."
The new intermediate robbery sentence only came into force in April 2005, part way through the year examined in today?s sentencing statistics.
Gerry Sutcliffe, the Home Office Minister, said the Government was committed to heavier sentences for dangerous and serious offenders.
But Mr Sutcliffe reiterated the message of John Reid, the Home Secretary, that prisons should only be used for protecting the public from "serious, violent and persistent offenders".
"As we?ve repeatedly said, some offenders don?t need to be in custody and their offending can better be addressed with a tough community order which can pay back the community they have damaged," Mr Sutcliffe said.
"Community orders can be tailored to address the underlying causes of offending, such as drug abuse, giving sentencers more flexibility."
There are more than 80,000 people in jail in England and Wales, the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe. At least 8,000 extra spaces are planned.