THOUSANDS more criminals are having their prison sentences suspended despite having previous convictions or cautions, a new report has claimed.

In North Yorkshire, 56 offenders received suspended prison sentences in 2002, one in every 512. This figure increased to 454 in 2012, or one in 31.

The figures were released by the Centre for Crime Prevention - a campaign group which supports higher numbers of police officers on the beat and tougher prison sentences for serious and repeat offenders.

The think-tank also claimed there were 8,444 cases of serious offenders receiving suspended sentences in 2012/13 despite having 15 or more previous convictions or cautions.

It also claims the number of suspended prison sentences issued in North Yorkshire in 2012/13 is 17 times higher than in 2002 - up from three per cent to 31 per cent, roughly in line with the national average.

In Humberside, figures rose from 59 in 2002 (one in 411), to 934 in 2012 (one in 26), an increase from three per cent to 33 per cent.

The nature of suspended sentences changed in 2005, when Parliament introduced suspended sentences with requirements, meaning defendants could be spared jail but could still be given a punishment, typically unpaid work, a curfew or probation, and they must stay out of trouble for longer.

But Peter Cuthbertson, director of the CCP, called the figures "an explosion in numbers" and "a failure of public protection".

He said: "This means tens of thousands of killers, thugs, sex offenders and fraudsters avoiding prison and reoffending hundreds of thousands of times.

"As they explode in numbers, suspended sentences are failing to control crime and to protect the public. Once a curious anomaly in the criminal justice system, the injustice and misery they cause is growing to alarming levels. Suspended sentences should be abolished."

Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said: "Since 2010 criminals are more likely to go to prison – and for longer.

"In the 12 months to June 2013 almost 48,000 offenders didn't 'walk free' but went straight to prison - four times as many as got a suspended sentence.

"It is right that the most serious offenders spend longer behind bars, which is why we are overhauling sentencing and making sure judges have tough sentencing options available to them.

"But sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the independent judiciary based on the full facts of each case.”

North Yorkshire Police and the Crown Prosecution Service were approached by The Press but declined to comment.