DOMESTIC abusers, paedophiles, drug dealers, prolific thieves and violent offenders have been spared jail as the lockdown loosens even though there are thousands of empty prison spaces, because it may be "too heavy" a punishment for them during the pandemic.
Criminals, sometimes repeat offenders, have been told they were facing custody because the offences were "so serious" or due to previous convictions, only to walk free from court after sentences were suspended.
Many spared jail were convicted of domestic violence, which is supposed to be considered a priority offence in the pandemic, due to the rise in offences after couples were forced to isolate together during lockdown.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) confirmed there are around 4,000 empty spaces in prisons across England and Wales.
Covid-19 guidelines published last month by the Sentencing Council, which produces advice for magistrates and judges on the sentences to impose, are believed to be behind courts across the country suspending the jail sentences of large numbers of defendants who would otherwise have been behind bars.
Essex News and Investigations has seen details of several other recent domestic violence cases at various courts where prison terms were suspended, including a woman who slashed her partner with a knife.
Several other defendants convicted of other assaults, including on police officers, were not jailed as were paedophiles, a man who stabbed a parrot to death, a prolific thief who stole a £16,000 handbag from an exclusive London store and a man who repeatedly stole hundreds of pounds of alcohol from a Manchester Sainsbury's.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has tried to keep the prison population down during the pandemic.
CRUEL: Aaron Jay was spared jail after stabbing a parrott to death (Police image)
It had planned to release 4,000 prisoners at the start of the pandemic, but only let out 100.
An MoJ spokeswoman said the population had declined naturally due to lower crime levels during lockdown and release of prisoners at the end of the sentence.
She confirmed there were currently about 4,000 empty prison spaces across the country and that any change in sentencing would be down to Sentencing Council guidelines.
These guidelines have reinforced previous advice to courts on when custodial sentences can be ruled out or when suspended, in order to keep more people out of jail.
The guidelines state: "The Sentencing Council is aware of and understands the concerns that many people have about the effect the Covid-19 emergency is having on conditions in prisons and the potentially heavier impact of custodial sentences on offenders and their families.
"Throughout the sentencing process, and in considering all the circumstances of the individual case, the court must bear in mind the practical realities of the effects of the current health emergency.
"The court should consider whether increased weight should be given to mitigating factors, and should keep in mind that the impact of immediate imprisonment is likely to be particularly heavy for some groups of offenders or their families."
The guidelines cite the April 30 judgement of Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice in the case of paedophile Christopher Manning, 47, Manning was sentenced to 12 months in prison suspended for 24 months at Bristol Crown Court on February 24 after he previously pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
HEAVY: Lord Burnett of Maldon said coronavirus could be a sentencing consideration (Photoshot)
The CPS appealed the conviction as being too lenient, In the judgement, that rejected the appeal, Lord Burnett said judges and magistrates should "keep in mind" that the impact of a prison sentence during the pandemic was likely to be "heavier" including prisoners confined in cells for 23 hours a day and unable to receive visits, while being fearful of catching the virus.
The judgement added: “The current conditions in prisons represent a factor which can properly be taken into account in deciding whether to suspend a sentence."
Samantha Jane Barr, 47, was spared prison despite slashing her boyfriend in the stomach and chest with a knife in a vodka-fueled rage in March at his flat near Malton, in North Yorkshire.
At a sentencing at York Crown Court her 12 month prison term was suspended.
Aiden Stott, 37, from Oldham, assaulted a man in Sale, near Manchester, last September and the same day smashed a window at a woman's home while subject to a community order for a previous violent offence.
He denied the offences, but was found guilty in May.
At a Greater Manchester Magistrates' Court sentencing he was jailed for 16 weeks as the offences were considered so serious and domestic violence related.
However, magistrates suspended the sentence for 12 months provided he does 150 hours community service and pays £422 in compensation and for victim support.
Sean Prescott, 24, from Wigan, assaulted a woman on two consecutive days and damaged £900 of property at her home during one of the assaults.
He was sentenced at the same court to 20 weeks in jail after pleading guilty but it was suspended for 18 months provided he takes a programme in building better relationships.
Aaron Ray, 18, was spared a 12-week prison term after he flew into a rage and stabbed a pet parrot to death at a home in Sunderland, in January, but was banned from keeping animals.
Lawson Gold, 50, from Caterham, Surrey, was found with 500 extreme sexual images of children and animals in 2018.Last month he was jailed at Guildford Crown Court to 12 months but the judge suspended it for 24 months provided he does 100 hours of community service.
Stephen Cone, 33, from Minningtree, Essex, was sentenced last month to six months in prison last month for the online sexual grooming of a girl aged under 16 in 2018.
But magistrates at Colchester suspended it after learning he undertook counselling.
Drug dealer Askar Ali, 42, was caught with 30 cannabis deals, three mobile phones, more than £4,000 cash stashed under his bed, and thousands of snap bags, in Hanley, Staffordshire.
But, a judge at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court chose to suspend his nine month prison term.
On June 19 Omar Balkhi, 28, of no fixed abode, was caught in possession of a knife and cannabis at Moorgate Underground Station.
He pleaded guilty and Westminster Magistrates' Court sentenced him to 16 weeks in prison, but suspended it for 12 months.
David Spencer, (pictured above) research director at think tank the Centre for Crime Prevention, said: "It is absolutely wrong for the coronavirus pandemic to be used as an excuse to allow dangerous criminals to remain on the streets.
“Instances of domestic violence and anti-social behavior have grown dramatically during the lockdown period but these softer sentencing guidelines send out the message that this doesn’t matter and you won’t be punished.
“A crime is a crime regardless of whether we are in lockdown and while all efforts should be made to keep prisoners safe from coronavirus, if you are convicted of a serious crime, you should absolutely still do your time behind bars.”
A Sentencing Council spokeswoman: "The statement we published on June 23 does not change the test for whether the custody threshold had been passed, which is set out in the Imposition guideline. "The statement clarifies for those less familiar with the criminal justice system that there are well-established sentencing principles which, with sentencing guidelines, are sufficiently flexible to deal with all circumstances, including the consequences of the current emergency."