A NEW research centre devoted to the study of prisons is looking to Africa for inspiration in dealing with community service sentences. Home secretary Jack Straw gave his support to the project last week when he opened the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London.
Mr Straw said it was essential to find alternatives to custodial sentences that carried weight with the public.
An example is a successful scheme, begun five years ago, which operates in five African countries. In Zimbabwe it has reduced the prison population from 22,000 to 18,000 in the past two years. The schemes are administered by the courts and supervised by community groups rather than social workers.
Vivien Stern, senior research fellow at the King's centre, said: "Alternatives to prison in this country clearly don't have the confidence of the public and, in many cases, the courts, too.
"They are no longer provided in a way which fits with modern perception of how crime should be treated."
She said one problem in Britain was that community service sentences were too closely tied up with the social welfare system, which meant they were not always seen as punishments.
A recent international crime survey showed public confidence in non-custodial sentences had fallen in Britain. In 1992, 61 per cent of people surveyed said they had confidence in such sentences, but last year less than half shared this view.
Britain and United States are now the only countries in the world where most people favour a prison sentence for a 21-year-old burglar.
Latest figures show about 28 per cent of sentences are community penalties, while 23 per cent are custodial, 30 per cent are fines and 19 per cent are forms of discharge.
The researchers, who are working with the government and the research group Penal Reform International, hope their findings will influence future policy onsentencing.