Two in three serial offenders escape being sent to prison

Just a third of criminals who have at least 15 previous offences to their name were given a prison sentence last year after going back to crime yet again.

It was the lowest custody rate since such figures began being recorded in 2000 and means more than 62,000 career criminals avoided prison despite continuing their long history of offending.

More than 4,000 hardened offenders did not even reach the courts after being handed a caution, the Ministry of Justice figures showed.

The courts are handing out soft penalties despite the number of repeat offenders appearing before them almost doubling in the last ten years.

The figures will raise fresh fears of a"revolving door" criminal justice system.

The trend will also pile extra pressure on Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, who has been accused of going soft on criminals with his proposals for sentencing reform that will see thousands fewer offenders go to prison.

A total of 96,710 offenders sentenced in the crown courts last year had at least 15 previous convictions or cautions to their name.

However, of those only 35.8 per cent were given a custodial sentence for their new crime.

While a breakdown of the new offences was not available it does mean some 62,088 hardened offenders avoided custody.

A further 4,340 were given a caution and did not even appear in court.

The custody rate has been in steady decline since 2005 suggesting courts are becoming increasingly soft on the most prolific criminals.

The proportion of serial offenders has also risen sharply since 2000 when 54,242 were sentenced by the courts, representing 17 per cent of all those convicted.

Last year that figure had risen to 96,710 or 29 per cent.

One in five violent offenders last year had 15 or more previous convictions, as did almost four in ten burglars and one in five drug offenders.

Philip Davies, the Tory MP, said: "Prison should be used for serious offenders and persistent offenders and any one who has got 15 or more convictions to their name is clearly a persistent offender.

It beggars belief that a Conservative Justice Secretary can look at these figures and claim too many people are going to prison."

Figures last week showed just one criminal is jailed for every 93 crimes committed.

And in November, a review for the MoJ found the majority of offenders never give up a life of crime with three quarters reoffending within a decade or less.

Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, is under attack from traditional Tories over his proposed sentencing reforms that will see fewer criminals sent to prison and more handed penalties such as community orders and fines

He became embroiled in a fierce row earlier this month over plans to over rapists and other offenders a 50 per cent sentence discount for early pleas.

A MoJ spokesman said: "These statistics highlight that the number of criminals committing multiple crimes has nearly doubled in the last decade.

This underlines why it is so important to focus on taking a new approach specifically designed to tackle reoffending, and so cut crime.

The consultation on our proposals for doing this has closed and we will be publishing our final response shortly."