SHOPLIFTERS could avoid jail no matter how many times they commit the offence, under proposals from a sentencing watchdog.
The radical change could apply even when the thief is a persistent offender who has breached community sentences in the past, the Sentencing Advisory Panel suggests.
Only where shoplifters committed aggravated offences, such as those involving violence or damage, would they face a jail sentence, it proposes in a consultation paper.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that shoplifters could be jailed for up to eight weeks if they are seriously persistent.
The panel?s proposals, released yesterday, come amid concerns that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will cause a further rise in the number of prisoners. The Act will allow courts to tot up past convictions to increase the seriousness of an offence when it imposes a sentence.
Most shoplifters are at the lower end of the seriousness scale, but they tend to have a large number of previous convictions, the panel says. On average they have committed 42 previous offences.
The panel, a governmentappointed body that recommends changes to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, recognises that the ?no-jail? option would be a radical departure from present practice. There are more sentences handed down in England and Wales for theft from shops than any other offence in both magistrates? and crown courts.
Under option one, the panel says: ?The most severe sentence for a standard offence of theft from a shop would be a high-level community order, even where an offender may have failed to comply with such an order in the past. The only factors that could allow a custodial sentence to be imposed would be the existence of identified aggravating factors.? These could include using violence, high-value thefts, operating in gangs, using children to commit the offence or targeting vulnerable victims.
Option two would ?allow for a custodial sentence for a standard offence when committed by a ?seriously persistent? offender?.
In 2004-05 police recorded 280,000 cases of shoplifting. Of the 61,670 adults who were sentenced in 2004, 21 per cent were jailed. The use of custody by magistrates has increased from 5 per cent in 1994. Sentences are also becoming more severe. The use of fines has dropped, however.
It was estimated in 2003 that the offence cost retailers ?750 million.
The panel has asked for views to be submitted by November 16 before it considers a final report.