An easy way out or best for UK prison system? Ministers Could consider scrapping prison sentences under 6 months.

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.

Government makes £2bn loss on sale of RBS shares

Overnight the government has sold 925m shares in the majority public owned RBS for £2.5bn. The sale represents a £2.1bn loss at the rate of 271p, compared to 500p a decade ago, which has not been traded above since 2010.

The National Audit Office (NAO) states that the true break-even price is 625p. This itself has never hit this since 2008, and could lead to an overall total loss of over £30bn.

The government still owns 7.5 billion shares, and this latest sale covers 7% of the ownership of the bank. The first batch of shares to be sold after Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown had to intervene in 2008 was in 2015 for 330p raising £1.9bn. After this latest round, taxpayers’ stake in the bank has lowered from 70.1% to 62.4%.

Ostensibly, this loss needs to be measured over what the catastrophic scenario would have been without the bailout out in the first place which cannot be denied when the banking world of a decade ago is judged. RBS was arguably the biggest bank in the world at the time and the Labour government originally was forced to step in to save a crisis, not to attempt to make a profit. Over the past decade the bank has been restructured, and now operates more as a domestic bank, for example RBS now operates in nine countries as opposed to thirty-eight. However, such vast scale restructuring has led to the bank shrinking in size by more than half, leading to between 50,000-60,000 job losses.

Despite these damaging figures, both the government and RBS appear satisfied with the mornings conclusions. Jon Glen, Treasury Economic Secretary argued that it is “unrealistic” to think Britain should hold on to RBS shares until taxpayers can recoup their investment, and Chancellor Phillip Hammond sees the sale as helping to put the “financial crisis behind us”. Hammond also argued that the government should not be in the business of owning banks, and that the proceeds of this sale will go towards reducing the national debt and help to “build an economy that is fit for the future.”

But this it is virtually impossible for the public to feel self-assured in these comments. Especially after the worries amongst financiers earlier in the year that there was potentially another crash on the way, looking at America particularly, which do not seem to let up following President Trump’s latest protectionist trade policies.

Amongst the Chief Executive of RBS Ross McEwan’s pleasure at the largest stakeholder selling more of its share, he is under the impression that RBS is now a simpler, safer bank that is focussed on delivering for its customers and its shareholders. Indeed so, in February the bank reported an annual profit of £752m, this was its first for a decade and a sharp turnaround from the £6.95bn loss the previous year.

Yet on the Today programme this morning, Ian Gordon, a Banking Analyst at Investec, not only reiterated the gloomy news for the public that there is no chance of ever breaking even on its investment, but RBS have further plans to downsize to hit a cost-income ratio target of 50%. This will add to the £40bn already spent by RBS on conduct and restructuring cost, which has not only consumed the £45 billion bailout fee, but together with bad debts has destroyed the value of the business, and could lead to more job losses. Gordon concluded that because of this, RBS is still an inefficient bank and the most optimistic and aggressive target, should all the markets act favourably, would be 2023 for selling off all remaining shares.

Frustratingly, Jane Sydenham, an Investment Director at Rathbone, sees the present as a good time for the government to sell these shares because the economy is “reasonably strong” due to low interest rates which are slowly rising. This may be good for the banks, but similarly was thought over ten years ago, and, looking at the uncertainty in America and the rise of populism across Europe, it remains difficult for faith to be placed in the current economic system going forward.

Despite positive sounds coming from the world of finance, not only is it clear that the public will not be refunded directly, judging from the mixed reception it is still clear that everything is very unclear. At the turn of the year there was talk of another crash. And comments from Sydenham about the economy growing and interest rates being low mean nothing to people whose wages cannot compete with inflation.

Analysis from Iwan Doherty- Editor in Chief

Privatised profits and nationalised losses. When the Labour Party rail against policies for ‘the few’ this is what they mean. RBS has been making losses at the expense of the taxpayer for the last decade, but as soon as it posts a profit it is boxed up to be sold. The policy is corrupt and will only enrich a few people and will hit our pockets.

The chancellor says we cannot hold onto our shares. Nonsense. George Osbourne promised that the Treasury would make a profit on bailing out the banks. We are set to make a £25bn loss. This from the party of fiscal responsibility.

The loss is a spectacular failure by the Tories and another reminder of how the rich and powerful use their influence to tip the tables in society. It is another reminder of the Global Financial Crisis when the economic establishment made us pay up for their mistakes.