Just a quarter of knife crime offenders in Devon and Cornwall were sentenced to prison last year, figures reveal.

Anti-knife crime charity the Ben Kinsella Trust said it is "extremely worrying" to see fewer criminals being sent to prison across England and Wales, despite a rise in knife crime.

Ministry of Justice figures show that 331 knife and offensive weapon offenders were cautioned or convicted in Devon and Cornwall in the year to March – with 87 (26%) resulting in immediate custody.

However, this was in line with the rate in 2020-21, but down from 29% in 2019-20, before the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, 18% of offences resulted in a caution, 20% in a community sentence, 27% in a suspended sentence and 8% in another form of disposal.

Across England and Wales, the proportion of offenders receiving an immediate custodial sentence for a knife and offensive weapon offence fell from 36% in 2019-20, to just 29% last year.

This comes despite a 2015 policy of “two strikes and you’re out” – where repeat offenders would face a minimum six-month prison sentence for carrying a knife.

The MoJ figures also show that 19,555 knife crime offences nationwide resulted in a caution or conviction in 2021-22 – which is still below pre-pandemic levels, but a 5% rise on the previous year.

As a result, the rate of offences rose from 35 per 100,000 people to 37 year-on-year.

MoJ statisticians said the latest figures are impacted by the effects of the pandemic – including the impact of lockdowns, changes to court arrangements, the re-opening of courts and the types of cases which were prioritised.

However, Patrick Green, chief executive of the Ben Kinsella Trust, said: "It is extremely worrying to see that knife crime offences are rising while fewer criminals are being sent to prison for their crimes.

"While Covid restrictions will have accounted for some of the variation, it is concerning to see that this trend has continued since restrictions were lifted.

"We need greater investment in the court process to reduce the length of time it takes for a case to get to court."

He added that victims deserve swift justice, but the figures show this is not happening – and this needs to be addressed immediately.

In Devon and Cornwall, the rate of knife offences was 23 per 100,000 people last year – down from 27 in 2020-21.

Meanwhile, the average custodial sentence length for offenders nationally rose slightly to 7.5 months in 2021-22.

The Government said the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act ensures the most serious and violent offenders will spend longer behind bars.

And it said new Home Office measures will mean police can conduct more stop and searches for dangerous weapons, while Serious Violence Reduction Orders will allow them to target adults previously convicted for knife or other offensive weapon crimes.