Time for sentencing reform
There was much excitement this weekend when Rory Stewart wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph Magazine signalling the MoJ’s intent on cutting the prison population by restricting short prison sentences of six months or less.
Arguing the case for reform, Mr Stewart told the Telegraph:
“You bring somebody in for three or four weeks, they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation. They come (into prison), they meet a lot of interesting characters (to put it politely) and then you whap them onto the streets again. The public are safer if we have a good community sentence… And it will relieve a lot of pressure on prisons.”
This article comes in the context of both Mr Stewart and the Justice Secretary David Gauke making it clear since they were appointed almost exactly one year ago that they wanted to reduce the use of short prison sentences.
However, although liberals and pragmatists might feel this is an entirely appropriate step, it is always politically tricky for any minister, but especially a Conservative one, to be seen to be in any way “soft on crime”.
This situation explains why the MoJ continues to be cautious and somewhat deliberate in its approach to the issue; this was the official line from the Petty France press office:
“As we have said previously, short sentences are too often ineffective, provide little opportunity to rehabilitate offenders and lead to unacceptably high rates of reoffending. That’s why we are exploring potential alternatives but this work is ongoing and we have reached no conclusions at this time.”
There’s a strong rational case for reform. Despite recent concerns about a rise in some forms of violent crime, overall there’s been a massive reduction in the level of crime over the last 25 years (from more than 19 million offences recorded by the police in 1994 to 10.7 million in 2018) while our prison population has actually increased (from 45,000 in 1993 to the current (11 January 2019) figure of 82,107. We imprison a higher proportion of our population than most other countries in the world and every other country in Western Europe. By way of illustration, the latest figures show that Scotland imprisons 143 people per 100,000 of its population, England & Wales 141, France 104, Germany 75 and Finland 51.
It’s also clear that we overuse prison in England and Wales. Official MoJ figures analysed in the last Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing tell us that around 61,500 people were sent to prison in the 12 months to June 2018 and no fewer than 47% of these were sentenced to serve six months or less. The figure for women is 62%.
The same publication confirms what many of have known for years: that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending. The latest one year reconviction rates are:
- Prison sentences of less than 12 months – 63%
- Community order – 56%
- Suspended Sentence order – 54%
There is also a financial case to be made to tackle reoffending by short term prisoners. In 2010 the National Audit Office calculated that reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners was estimated to cost the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually. As much as three quarters of this cost can be attributed to former short-sentenced
prisoners—some £7–10bn a year.
What happens next?
Credit must go to a number of voluntary sector organisations for continuing to lobby against short prison sentences. Recent examples include the Revolving Doors Agency #shortsighted campaign (some of whose graphics are included in this post) and work by the Criminal Justice Alliance.
However, we are still a long way form any substantive change. The challenge for ministers is that any change would require primary legislation and so cannot be done swiftly. Mr Gauke and Mr Stewart will both have to persuade colleagues and find time in a legislative timetable which continues to be dominated by Brexit.
There is then the question of how best to try to restrict short sentences. The much-respected criminal justice commentator Rob Allen provides an insightful commentary. The Scottish precedent – since February 2011 a Scottish court must not pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term of three months or less unless it considers that no other method of dealing with a person is appropriate – has not been completely successful. In the first five years of this ban being in place, Scottish courts still imposed very short sentences on 3,500 individuals. Indeed, in 2016/17 (the most recent year for which figures are available) 28% of all prison sentences were still made for periods of three months or less.
Mr Allen suggest a range of approaches. The MoJ could be much more explicit about how serious an offence must be before courts can pass a sentence of imprisonment. Alternatively, the MoJ could encourage the use of more suspended sentences. A particular challenge for ministers at the moment is that the obvious alternative to short prison sentences is a form of community sentence where an offender is supervised by the probation service. However, the reorganisation of the probation service under the Transforming Rehabilitation project has resulted in Magistrates having much less confidence in community sentences.
We shall have to wait and see what approach ministers decide to take, but we should still applaud Mr Stewart for having the political courage to make the case against short prison sentences.