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Campaign to end short prison sentences gathers pace
David Gauke clearly signals intention to tackle short prison sentences.

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Regular readers will be well aware of the #shortsighted campaign by the Revolving Doors Agency to reduce the use of short prison sentences. The campaign was given a major boost by Justice Secretary David Gauke in a speech at the Reform Think Tank this Monday (18 February).

Borrowing the #smartjustice catchphrase Mr Gauke clearly signaled the government’s intention to tackle counter-productive (and expensive) short prison sentences.

In a landmark speech he challenged the “polarising” view that there is only a choice between “soft” and “hard” justice, arguing that the focus should instead be on a system based on evidence of what actually works – “punishments that are punitive, for a purpose”.

In setting out his vision, the Justice Secretary stressed he did not want to reverse tougher sentencing for serious crimes, but urged caution in continuing to increase sentence length as a response to concerns over crime.

Instead, he urged those who shape the system to “take a step back” and ask fundamental questions such as whether our approach to sentencing reduces crime; if prisons currently maximise the chances of rehabilitation; and if we should look at better alternatives to punish and rehabilitate offenders.

He said:

I think now is the time for us as a society, as a country, to start a fresh conversation, a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times.

Predictably, much of Mr Gauke’s speech was focused on potential political opponents (many from his own side of the political divide) who might be concerned that he was going “soft on crime”.

The Justice Secretary combated this argument by talking up the requirements of community orders:

I want a regime that can impose greater restrictions on people’s movements and lifestyle and stricter requirements in terms of accessing treatment and support. And critically, these sentences must be enforced.

Mr Gauke stressed the vital role technology has to play in effective community orders, highlighting the rollout of  GPS tagging to more effectively monitor offenders’ movements:

Other new technology and innovations are opening up the possibility of even more options for the future too.

For example, technology can monitor whether an offender has consumed alcohol, and enables us to be able to better restrict and monitor alcohol consumption where it drives offending behaviour.

We are testing the value of alcohol abstinence monitoring requirements for offenders on licence, building on earlier testing of its value as part of a community order.

Smart Justice

Mr Gauke also coined another useful sound-bite in promoting the use of effective sentencing; arguing that rather than making the punishment fit the crime, we should:

“Make the punishment fit the criminal.”

He advocated more use of treatment requirements in community orders. It is clear that the Justice Secretary understands that he will not succeed in gaining sentencers’ support for increasing the use of community sentences  without restoring their confidence in the probation service, further hit by recent damning probation inspectorate reports. Although he ducked questions from the audience on this issue, he promised to “return to the issue later this year” and it is clear that the final re-design to the next stage of Transforming Rehabilitation is under active consideration.

Mr Gauke did not set out any way forward for reducing the number of short prison sentences, saying he wanted to talk to sentencers first. However, he did not rule out legislation and has clearly been emboldened by the YouGOv poll commissioned by the Revolving Doors Agency which found there was cross-party support from MPs.

Watch this space.

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