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Howard League blog · 1 Oct 2019

It is just as irresponsible to promote short prison sentences as it is to oppose vaccination

The justice secretary is to announce plans to change the law so that men (almost all of them will be men) who are serving long sentences for serious sex and violent crimes will have to serve at least two thirds of their sentence, instead of half.

This is not about protecting victims. This is not about making communities safer.

No one believes that a rapist is going to stop what he is doing because he thinks that, if he gets arrested (which he won’t), and if he gets prosecuted (which he won’t), and if he gets convicted (which he won’t) and if he gets a prison sentence of nine years he will now serve six years instead of four-and-a-half.

This will not prevent one woman being raped.

But it will do several other very damaging things.

The impact of this punitive rhetoric is to inflate the prison population

It adds to increasingly punitive rhetoric emanating from government. The tenor of the debate on crime and punishment seeps into the public discourse insidiously. At a time when the nation is already divided and increasingly angry, adding this fuel to the fire is irresponsible.

The impact of this punitive rhetoric is to inflate the prison population. History shows that when government talks tough, the prison population increases. So it is no surprise that the number of men and women in prison has gone up by more than 600 last month.

The government’s own assessment is that the change will result in an increase to the prison population of 3,000, almost all men. The Channel 4 programme on Winchester prison last night showed the effects of overcrowding in one relatively small prison. When the film was made the prison had room for 439 men but was holding 607, and the throughput was thousands. Adding another 3,000 to a prison system strained beyond its limit is irresponsible.

The secretary of state is also expected to announce that he has decided to flout all the evidence that short prison sentences are counter-productive and create more victims of crime, and will go back on his predecessors’ promise to abolish them.

This is the ‘anti-vax’ policy – we all know that vaccines work, just as evidence shows that short prison sentences don’t. It is just as irresponsible to oppose vaccination as it is to promote short prison sentences. Follow the evidence.

I actually don’t think the current secretary of state wanted to do any of these things, as he is a decent man with experience of working in the criminal justice system. My gut feeling is that he has been pressured into doing something to fit in with the punitive rhetoric coming from Number 10, and came up with things that appeared to fit the requirement but were as damage-limiting as possible.

In response to the call from the Prime Minister for a sentencing review, it could have been far worse. I am clinging to that.


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