Shine A Light

Short prison sentences help no-one

We are intoxicated with imprisonment in England and Wales. A much better alternative is to use community programmes that have a better record of reducing crime.

Frances Crook
10 August 2011

About 100,000 men, women and children are sentenced to prison each year in England and Wales. We are intoxicated with imprisonment, wallowing in incarceration.

Figures given to Parliament in a written question tabled by Helen Grant, the Conservative MP who won Ann Widdecombe’s old seat show that more than half of these people were given prison sentences of less than six months. A third of the men, women and children sentenced to prison were sent there for less than three months.

There can be no possible benefit to the public for this sentencing practice. It does not help change the lives of the perpetrators, indeed it is likely to compound drug addiction and criminality. It costs a fortune to the taxpayer. Victims get no recompense or easing of trauma.

The problem with magistrates sending people to prison for short periods of time is that it makes things worse. More than two thirds of the people sent to prison by magistrates are reconvicted of more crimes. A two thirds failure rate is pretty awful. This is a catalogue of failure.

Yet there are very good community programmes available that have much better outcomes and help to reduce crime. They don’t stop all crime, but they address the offending and they allow people to get the other services they need to get help with drinking, drug taking, mental health and maybe even get a job.

Following publication of the piece of work we did jointly with the Prison Governors Association on short sentenced prisoners, we held meetings with senior officials to impart our findings. I was given to understand that the government had been keen to do something to stem the flow of short sentenced prisoners but that powerful lobbying by magistrates who wanted to retain the power to imprison people for a few weeks led to it being abandoned. Magistrates lobbied to keep doing the same old sentencing that they know doesn’t work.

I have to own up here to some responsibility – the Howard League set up the Magistrates Association around a hundred years ago. Whilst we are very happy to work with the MA, benches and individual magistrates on a wide range of issues, this sort of antediluvian lobbying is very damaging to the fabric of the nation. It is time for magistrates to relinquish a power that is corrosive to the country, damages victims and, at time of fiscal austerity, wastes money.

This piece was cross posted at Frances Crook's blog.

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