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Howard League blog · 22 Jul 2019

Why short prison sentences must go

David Gauke has indicated he will resign as Justice Secretary when we have a new Prime Minister. He was hoping to have abolished short prison sentences but we now learn that the consultation on how to enact this has been delayed. Last week he published research showing that short prison sentences are counter-productive, so now the challenge will be fairly placed on whoever takes over as to whether evidence or cheap politics is the primary purpose of his or her decisions.

I gave a couple of presentations last week arguing why we should get rid of short prison sentences using a short, sharp ten point plan. Here it is.

  1. Short prison sentences don’t help victims because they embed criminality – the majority of people sent to prison for short periods commit more crimes, hence creating more victims.
  2. They don’t reduce crime generally, because they fail to deter or change lives.
  3. They destabilise prisons. It’s the local prisons that are violent, drug ridden, rat infested, crowded and counter-productive. People on short sentences cause the churn, meaning local prisons have hundreds of men and women in and out every week. Thirteen of the prisons subject to Urgent notifications or in special measures take remands and short sentences: Under Urgent Notification are Nottingham, Exeter, Bristol, Bedford, Birmingham. In Special Measures are Lewes, Winchester, Wandsworth, Liverpool, Wormwood Scrubs, Chelmsford, Hewell, Elmley.
  4. They are feeding the problem of drugs in prisons. Chris Grayling added a year of surveillance with fixed term recalls – which led to 9,000 recalls last year. Being recalled to prison for three weeks is a good way of bringing in drugs, and many people subject to recall are bullied into bringing in drugs.
  5. They are expensive – prisons are expensive.
  6. Most women only get short sentences. Over 300 women got sentences of just two weeks – hardly indicating they were hardened criminals.
  7. Abolition would reduce unnecessary remands, as if a person is not going to get a short prison sentence they would be less likely to get a custodial remand.
  8. Would bring England and Wales in line with Scotland. Scotland has introduced a presumption against prison sentences of under a year.
  9. We could focus on making community sentences more constructive – and goodness knows they need sorting out.
  10. Would change focus of magistrates to make them problem solvers, not punishers.

There is robust research to show that short prison sentences are counter-productive, particularly for prolific low level offenders. The evidence is there, whoever takes over as Justice Secretary should act on evidence and sort it out.


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