BRITAIN'S prisons, we are told, are at breaking point and we should reconsider sentencing policy. At the same time the capital's top policeman rubbishes the legal system, saying villains are getting off scot free and defence lawyers are getting away with murder - figuratively speaking of course.

The general public will probably have sympathy with the policeman. The key point of a prison sentence is not that it is revenge, punishment nor even education - it is taking a menace to society out of circulation for a period. Burglar Bill may be perfecting his techniques behind bars, but at least he's not stealing your property during a long sentence.

For deterrent purposes, there probably are better sentences than prison. We suspect that the Skipton publicans who banned violent thugs from their premises for life have imposed a far harsher sentence than the town's magistrates could have done.

We particularly liked the tale of the American judge who this week sentenced a habitual offender to a 10 months ban on watching television. It has such a satisfying ring to it. Imagine the torment and frustration - perhaps he'll take up needlework.

Maybe our judicial system can follow the trend and save the public purse by easing the strain on our overcrowded prisons.

For example, the woman who made up a tale that her brother was a firefighter who had died in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre and thus obtained a free flight and stay in New York was given a conditional discharge by a British court this week. In other words, stay out of trouble for a year and no punishment will be given

Prison might be inappropriate - but how about a sentence of spending an hour on each of the next 52 Sundays in church praying for the victims of the atrocity?

Sentencing a football hooligan to a poetry writing course, or confiscating a young offenders' computer games won't cost the tax payer a fortune and might just be good for the soul.