MORE of the region's criminals are walking away from court with suspended sentences than ever before, according to new research.

Durham, Cleveland and Northumbria had the highest percentage of offenders having their prison sentences suspended in the country.

The figures have been released by the Centre For Crime Prevention (CFCP) which is campaigning to have suspended sentences abolished.

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The statistics, obtained from freedom of information requests, show that:

- More than four in ten prison sentences, or 42 per cent, in Northumbria were suspended in 2012, the highest figure in the country. In 2002 just three per cent were suspended.

- A total of 37 per cent of prison sentences in Cleveland and Durham were suspended in 2012, the last year full figures are available. The two counties are joint second-highest for the share of criminals whose prison sentences were suspended.

- In Northumbria, 1,391 sentences were suspended in 2012 compared with 730 in Cleveland and 568 in Durham. In 2002, only 89 sentences were suspended in Northumbria, 46 in Cleveland and 28 in Durham.

- The biggest increase was in Hertfordshire, up from ten suspended sentences in 2002 to 821 in 2012, an 82-fold increase. In Durham, the number rose from 28 to 568, a 20-fold increase; Northumbria, 89 to 1,391, nearly a 16-fold increase and Cleveland, 46 to 730, also a 16-fold increase.

Peter Cuthbertson, author of the report and director of CFCP, said: “These figures show that criminals given suspended sentences go on to commit hundreds of thousands of crimes. Suspended sentences should be abolished.”

Barry Coppinger, police and crime commissioner for Cleveland, said: “As a bald statistic the increase in suspended sentences could be seen as a concern. But you do need the wider picture and look at each case on its merits.”

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.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman added that the overall proportion of people getting suspended sentences between 2003 and 2013 had only gone up from 0.2 per cent to 3.6 per cent.

In the same period community sentences have fallen from 13.3 per cent to 10.8 per cent, suggesting that sentences are not getting softer.