Justice Secretary David Gauke has pledged that prison sentences shorter than six months will be abolished in England and Wales.
He promised to announce “firm” proposals this summer to abolish sentences of less than half a year, although this would exclude some convictions for violent and sexual offences, the Telegraph reported.
Gauke promised to go further than the reforms in Scotland in 2010, which introduced “presumption” against sentences of three months but was keen to emphasise that the reforms would be accompanied by “robust” measures to reduce re-offending and ensure the safety of the public.
The move is intended to reduce overcrowding in prisons and cut reoffending rates. It is the latest step in a programme of prison reform undertaken by Gauke since he replaced David Lidington as Justice Secretary in January 2018, and follows his recent announcement that probation services will be renationalised.
England and Wales have the second highest incarceration rate, and second largest prison population, of any EU nation, behind only Poland. The prison population in England and Wales has increased by 77% in the last thirty years, placing a huge strain on staff and resources.
According to the latest statistics from the Prison Reform Trust, almost half of the 65,000 people sent to prison in 2017 were given a sentence of 6 months or less. 63% of people with sentences of less than 12 months reoffended within a year of leaving prison, as opposed to 43% for the overall prison population in the same period.
Many in the prison sector believe that short sentences place greater pressure on an already overburdened prison system, yet do not allow sufficient time to change behaviour and address the causes of criminal activity. Short sentences, as opposed to no sentence at all or a period of community service or similar, seem to even have a detrimental effect, as prisoners are more likely to come into contact with criminal behaviour, as well as receiving a criminal record and thereby damaging their chances of getting into work or training once they come out. For more serious crimes, longer sentences give the opportunity to gain skills through education and training, affording a greater opportunity of successful reintegration into the community.
A study by the Prison Reform Trust found that prisoners with sentences of under a year had a reoffending rate seven percentage points higher than people who had committed similar offences and served a community sentence, suggesting that community sentences may be a more effective method of preventing reoffending. Community sentences also have additional benefits, such as allowing offenders to continue to fulfil their family duties, giving them the chance to contribute to society through work, and they come at a significantly lower cost to the taxpayer – one study suggested they cost 12 times less than prison sentences of the same length.
This recent announcement by the Justice Secretary therefore seems a positive one – we look forward to hearing more about the exact measures he plans to bring in in the coming weeks and months.
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