THE decision by a sheriff not to jail a cowardly thug who attacked and robbed an 86-year-old pensioner after asking for her help has been widely condemned.

Jamie Duncan pounced on the vulnerable woman by reaching into her pocket and stealing her purse as he asked for directions near Tranent town centre.

The woman bravely tried to fight off her attacker but he proved too strong and broke free from her grasp and ran off.

Police were alerted and Duncan, of Coatbridge, was soon picked up by officers in a nearby street following the robbery last November.

The distraught elderly victim was left in “floods of tears, sobbing and hyperventilating”.

Duncan, 29, admitted the assault and robbery in court and was this week placed on an 18-month supervision order and given 240 hours of community service.

He must also pay his victim £200 in compensation.

But Sheriff Donald Corke’s decision to not jail Duncan has provoked a wave of anger.

Local councillor Gordon Mackett said: “I am absolutely appalled that this individual has been allowed to walk free from such a vile and cowardly attack.

"This doesn’t send out the correct message. Where’s the deterrent?”

Tranent and Elphinstone Community Council chairman David Forrest added: “[This was] a despicable crime which should have resulted in a prison sentence.

"Just another case of soft justice in Scotland.”

While county MSP Iain Gray said: “It’s important for the public to have confidence that the justice system will protect them.

“People will be surprised that someone with a track record of failing to complete a community sentence has only been given another one.”

The court heard that Duncan had recently been released from a previous 10-month custodial sentence and was no longer using drugs.

Duncan’s solicitor Angela Craig said he was “thoroughly ashamed” of his actions and was now looking for a job.

He had received the 10-month prison sentence last year after he breached a previous community payback order imposed in 2016.

Sheriff Donald Corke said: “Given the nature of the offence custody is upmost in my mind.

“But I don’t think it will be useful to send you back straight away – it will be more useful to try and get you to change your behaviour.”

Previously, the court heard that the 86-year-old woman was approached by Duncan as she waited to cross the road at Haddington Road, Tranent, at about 3.30pm last November 28.

Fiscal depute Lorna Ferrier said: “She provided him with directions, but he walked off in the opposite direction.

“He returned shorty after and asked how to get to Musselburgh.

“The accused put his hand around her shoulders as if to give her a hug.

"The accused then put his hand inside her pocket where her purse was.

“She asked him to stop but he refused and a physical struggle ensued.”

The OAP eventually gave in and Duncan ran off with her purse.

She managed to make her way home and a neighbour described the woman as being in “floods of tears, sobbing and hyperventilating”.

County residents took to social media to air their disgust at the sentence.

One said: “I know the old lady he did it to and she’s the loveliest person you could ever meet. It’s disgusting what he did to her.”

While another said: “What are the judges doing nowadays? It seems that if you do the crime your definitely not doing the time.

“No wonder it keeps happening when they know they’ll hardly get punished.”

Another poster added: “We should all buy her flowers, show her we are all thinking of her, and maybe lift her spirits a bit.”

Duncan admitted assaulting and robbing an 86-year-old woman at Haddington Road, Tranent, on November 28 last year.