The number of under twelve month sentenced offenders in prison is small— latest prison population figures show they occupy just 6.4% of the available prison capacity

How to reduce the use of short prison sentences: Part 1

Posted on 19 Jun in

Phil Bowen

After spending years in and out of Government arguing that short prison sentences are a waste of time, a waste of money and probably create more crime than they prevent, it seems Government ministers are, suddenly, all ears. In the past few weeks, both David Gauke and Rory Stewart have publicly recognised that short prison sentences of less than twelve months create more crime, disrupt individuals’ rehabilitation and make the prison system they preside over crowded and more violent.

But that knot in the stomach comes when you have to confront the obvious question – “So what should we do instead?” When I was asked that question recently, I am not altogether sure I had my answer fully worked out.

Here’s this thing you have been asking for, for ages, but now it’s on offer, what are you going to do about it? We at the Centre want to set out our answer to this question in some detail and we will share our thinking in a short series of blogs.

As a starter, there are three things that are shaping our thoughts.

Firstly, abolishing all under twelve month sentences, even if that were really possible, is not the solution to our prison population being too big. The number of under twelve month sentenced offenders in prison is small— latest prison population figures show they occupy just 6.4% of the available prison capacity. The doubling of our prison population over the last thirty years hasn’t been driven by the under twelve month population. Reducing or eliminating the use of under twelve month prison sentences is only going to have a marginal impact on that problem.

Secondly, it’s not feasible to ignore the political realities of the problem, and the potential for adverse tabloid criticism. Moreover, victims and the public have a legitimate right to (proportionate) punishment and, as enthusiasts for evidence-led community supervision, we need to ensure those democratic impulses are catered for.

Thirdly, the under twelve month population is not a homogenous group. Assuming there is one single better option for the whole cohort is likely to be a recipe for disaster.

From these three axioms, and from other work on better community supervision of offenders, we think there are five evidence-led principles that should guide our thinking:

Immediacy: Sentences should be started and completed relatively quickly. During my time at Bronx Community Solutions run by our sister organisation the Center for Court Innovation, I witnessed the excellent impact of getting offenders into work programs quickly. I think it increases the impact on the individuals thinking, it increases the chance of them choosing not to reoffend.

Community safety: Sentencers should have the option of imposing controls on offenders such as curfews, geographical limitations or alcohol bans if they are required to ensure community safety. The developments in GPS enabled electronic monitoring and the electronic monitoring of alcohol consumption make controls on offenders a practical, enforceable intervention rather than the potentially symbolic act that risks the court looking ineffective.

Legal leverage: Research indicates that individuals must have a practical incentive to complete court mandates. Replacing very short prison sentences with long community sentences and/or heavy doses of community supervision (no matter how well intentioned) is unlikely to work— many people would rationally elect to do the prison time instead.

Help: Offenders should be provided with help to address the issues driving their offending. This project in Birmingham, is among a host of innovative approaches that are showing potential that stems from viewing those at risk of reoffending differently.

Procedural fairness: Offenders must be able to understand the requirements they are being asked to complete and have a clarity about what the rules, incentives and sanctions are. Procedural fairness is a principle that is core to our work and its benefits and applications are clear across the criminal justice system. Essentially, there is a positive impact on desistance and general respect for the law that stems from taking this approach.

In our next blog, we look at the first tranche of the under twelve month group— those getting very short sentences of less than 3 months. You can read it here.