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Government to cut the prison population?

Russell Webster looks at the consequences of Rory Stewart's plan to ban jail terms of six months or less

Big cuts in public expenditure are the main reason that our prison and probation services are in crisis.

However, restoring previous spending levels isn’t the only way to get things back on track. In criminal justice, unlike other public services such as health and education, it is possible to reduce spending safely by reducing the demand for services.

In simple terms, if there were fewer criminals in the system and, in particular, fewer people in prison the bill for our prison and probation services would be significantly reduced.

Objectively, there’s plenty of capacity to do this. Despite recent concerns about a rise in some forms of violent crime, overall there’s been a massive reduction in the level of crime over the last 25 years (from more than 19 million offences recorded by the police in 1994 to 10.7 million in 2018) while our prison population has actually increased (from 45,000 in 1993 to the current (11 January 2019) figure of 82,107.

We imprison a higher proportion of our population than most other countries in the world and every other country in Western Europe. By way of illustration, the latest figures show that Scotland imprisons 143 people per 100,000 of its population, England & Wales 141, France 104, Germany 75 and Finland 51.

Justice Ministers have always known that reducing demand was the best way of reducing spending on the justice system.

Chris Grayling’s plan to overhaul the probation service, known as Transforming Rehabilitation, might have been poorly thought out and rushed through without sufficient funding, but the aspiration behind it was that helping short-term prisoners on release would cut the reoffending rate and, in time, reduce the prison population. Of course, as it turned out, Mr Grayling used the opportunity of privatisation to cut funding so brutally that the new Community Rehabilitation Companies did not have the resources to provide a proper service to those released on short sentences.

This background information is all leading up to an article by Prisons Minister Rory Stewart published in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday saying that the Ministry of Justice is considering banning prison sentences of less than six months in England and Wales.

Arguing the case for reform, Mr Stewart told the Telegraph magazine: “You bring somebody in for three or four weeks, they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation. They come (into prison), they meet a lot of interesting characters (to put it politely) and then you whap them onto the streets again. The public are safer if we have a good community sentence… And it will relieve a lot of pressure on prisons.”

This article comes in the context of both Mr Stewart and the Justice Secretary David Gauke making it clear since they were appointed almost exactly one year ago that they wanted to reduce the use of short prison sentences.

However, although liberals and pragmatists might feel this is an entirely appropriate step, it is always politically tricky for any minister, but especially a Conservative one, to be seen to be in any way “soft on crime”.

This situation explains why the MoJ continues to be cautious and somewhat deliberate in its approach to the issue; this was the official line from the Petty France press office:

“As we have said previously, short sentences are too often ineffective, provide little opportunity to rehabilitate offenders and lead to unacceptably high rates of reoffending.

“That’s why we are exploring potential alternatives but this work is ongoing and we have reached no conclusions at this time.”

The challenge for ministers is that any change would require primary legislation and so cannot be done swiftly. There is then the question of how best to try to restrict short sentences.

The Scottish precedent – since February 2011 a Scottish court must not pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term of three months or less unless it considers that no other method of dealing with a person is appropriate – has not been completely successful. In the first five years of this ban being in place, Scottish courts still imposed very short sentences on 3,500 individuals. Indeed, in 2016/17 (the most recent year for which figures are available) 28% of all prison sentences were still made for periods of three months or less.

Criminal justice experts suggest a range of approaches. The MoJ could be much more explicit about how serious an offence must be before courts can pass a sentence of imprisonment. Alternatively, the MoJ could encourage the use of more suspended sentences.

A particular challenge for ministers at the moment is that the obvious alternative to short prison sentences is a form of community sentence where an offender is supervised by the probation service. However, the changes introduced by Mr Grayling have resulted in Magistrates having much less confidence in community sentences.

We shall have to wait and see what approach ministers decide to take, but we should still applaud Mr Stewart for having the political courage to make the case against short prison sentences.