HALF of all criminals found guilty of a serious crime escaped a prison sentence despite having more than 100 previous convictions or cautions.
Shocking figures seen by the Sunday Express reveal offenders convicted of violent crimes, sexual offences, robbery, burglary and drugs crimes are getting community or suspended sentences.
The figures come ahead of the publication this week of the sentencing Green Paper, which will outline plans to beef up community sentences and cut prison places by 3,000 over four years, as the Ministry of Justice suffers a 24 per cent budget cut of £2.5billion.
The plan has fuelled fears that dangerous criminals will not be sent to jail because of a lack of prison places.
Between 2007 and 2009, the number of criminals with 101 previous convictions or cautions who were not jailed rose from 243 to 385. Over the past two years the numbers with more than 76 previous convictions not given a custodial sentence rose from 334 to 455. All were indictable offences, deemed serious enough for the Crown Court.
In 2009, 2,660 criminals were not jailed for indictable offences despite 50 cautions or convictions, almost double the total of 1,605 in 2007.
The number not given custodial sentences for drugs offences rose from 90 in 2007 to 199 in 2009, while 251 were found guilty of violent crimes compared with 151 in 2007.
Barrister Robin Callender-Smith said: "On the face of it these figures require a great deal more explanation by the Ministry of Justice.
For someone to have over 50 previous convictions or cautions and not be looking at a custodial sentence is quite extraordinary."
Conservative MP Philip Davies said: "This is a complete scandal.
These people have been through community sentence after community sentence and are still offending. The last thing these people need is another community sentence. It is just ludicrous."
Mr Davies warned ministers were in for a"rude awakening" over their sentencing policy, which was"a million miles away from public opinion".
In 2009, a staggering 20,913 offenders who had been convicted or cautioned from 26 to 50 times received non-custodial sentences, compared with 16,367 in 2007.
The law defines a persistent offender as someone convicted or cautioned for three or more separate offences.
Despite being contacted by the Sunday Express, the MoJ failed to explain why hardcore offenders were not being jailed.
A Victim Support spokeswoman said: "People will ask why is this being allowed to go on. We need effective measures to stop people re-offending but what they are doing does not seem to be effective." Publication of the Green Paper was delayed, as Tories feared they would be seen as soft on crime. It will outline plans to cut sentences in half if criminals plead guilty.
Thousands could get beefed up community sentences, with private firms in charge of convicts repairing roads and cleaning railways.