Jail sentences of below 6 months could be scrapped to reduce mounting pressures on the prison system, the Minister for Prisons has suggested.
The Minister for Prisons, Rory Stewart, told the Daily Telegraph that under the new plans, over 30,000 potential criminals each year could be spared from short-term prison sentences.
The plans would also mean that prison sentences can only be handed to offenders who have been tried in the crown courts, as 6 months is the maximum tariff for magistrates-level convictions.
Stewart said the plans will ease pressure on the prison system, and that jail terms shorter than 6 months were “long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you.”
The Minister also highlighted that short-term prison sentences were punishments far beyond the time spent in prison, with 3-4 weeks having long-lasting effects such as disruption to family life and loss of primary income due to the stigma of having spent time in prison, and the criminal record that follows ex-prisoners.
Rory Stewart also mentioned that prisoners would instead be given more community sentences, instead of immediate custody, for smaller offences such as shoplifting, burglary and minor drug offences. This has led many people to question whether the institutions in place to provide community-based support and rehabilitation of offenders have the funding and resources to handle potential 30,000 new community sentences being issued in place of custody sentences.
Others have considered this to be a welcome change in rhetoric from the Ministry of Justice away from the previously disastrous ‘Prison Works’ campaign put in place by the Conservative Government in the last decade and is seen as Whitehall finally waking up to the prison crisis and looking for alternatives to prison.
This follows several months where the effectiveness of short-term prison sentences, where earlier in 2018 the then Justice Secretary David Gauke questioned the ability of prison sentences of less than 12 months to rehabilitate and stop criminals, and even mentioned that some low-level criminals may even be let off from their prison sentences early to account for work-force losses incurred from Brexit in May last year.
However, several politicians have called out the new plans as an ‘easy way out’ for many low-level criminals. Gerard Batten MEP, a Minister for European Parliament, stated that the plans would mean ‘the law-abiding are being abandoned to the criminals.’ Many critics of the proposed policy have also taken to social media, to predict a crime-wave in petty crimes following the policy’s implementation.
Yvonne Jewkes, Professor of Criminology at the University of Bath and Visiting Professor at the University of Melbourne, specialising in Prisons and Prison Architecture, welcomes the new scrutiny on the prison system but doesn’t believe the plans go far enough.
“In reality, we are only talking about a small percentage of the prison population.”
Only around 6% of the current prison population in England and Wales are serving sentences of 6 months or under. Professor Jewkes also mentions that this 6% accounts for the prison population who are most likely to re-offend or progress into more serious crimes that would warrant a custodial sentence, due to the number of low-level crimes they commit and the often chaotic nature of the lives of low-level repeat offenders.
The average size of custodial sentences in the UK has also steadily increased, from 12-15 years to 30-40 year sentences being commonplace for serious crimes, making hopes of rehabilitation among serious offenders unlikely as they are unlikely to be released before their deaths.
A more effective policy could be to drastically reduce the number of female prisoners in England and Wales, a population that is already over-crowding the limited infrastructure created for it, and focus rehabilitative methods on female prisoners to avoid the “catastrophic and long-lasting effects on them and their families.”
It is irrefutable that the prison system in its current state in England and Wales is unsustainable. The recidivism rates, or the rates at with individuals who had previously been sentenced for a crime end up being convicted of a crime, was at 29.4% between October 2016 and December 2016, in the latest release of the government’s statistics on reoffending. However, for individuals who had been released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, proven recidivism rates were at 64.5%, over double the rates of reoffending for convicted offenders in the United Kingdom for that quarter. There is a serious need for an overhaul for the criminal justice system, and that the prison system is at the heart of this.
The heavy pushes towards ‘populist punitiveness’ I recent years, where the public have been calling for more serious punishments for crimes, and more use of prisons, has led to the prison population in England and Wales exponentially rising, with many prisons now reporting being overcrowded and under-staffed. However, the push for more prisoners and fewer criminals in the public eye and “on the streets” would spell career suicide for an elected Minister making policies scaling back prison sentences. In the eyes of the ordinary UK citizen, prisons are the ‘waste bins’ of the country’s disposable criminal population beyond a centre for rehabilitation or even as a way of providing comfort to an offender’s victims. The general public has lost faith in the criminal justice system, but beyond that, has lost faith in the offenders who are forced to submit to the broken system to return to society, further powering and justifying the astronomical recidivism rates currently faced by the United Kingdom to both offenders and non-offenders.