we found there is a majority of the public in favour of using electronic monitoring as an alternative to short term custody

How to reduce the use of short prison sentences: part 3

Posted on 10 Jul in

Phil Bowen

Today, the Justice Secretary David Gauke made a speech at the Centre for Social Justice about prison reform. His announcement of additional investment in installing in-cell telephones in prisons is a welcome move. Some of the violence in our prisons is caused by prisoners having to queue to use the phones and the current arrangements also create demand for the illicit trade in illegal mobile phones.

At a time of acute political tension across Westminster, it was perhaps too much to hope he would outline the broader, systemic solutions to the problems confronting our prison estate. While there were positive words that there should be community alternatives to short sentences, there was little specificity about how the Government proposes to reduce the use of under twelve month prison sentences, a topic which we and many of our colleagues in the criminal justice reform are keen to see.

Given that policy lacuna, it felt the right time to extend our views on how we can find alternatives to short prison sentences. In previous posts, I have outlined our broad take on the alternative arrangements that he could take to place offenders on community programmes instead of sending them to custody. We have looked first at some general principles and then about what alternatives could exist for prisoners serving very short sentences of less than three months (briefly, we proposed proportionate use of unpaid work, executed and completed swiftly, with voluntary referral to rehabilitation services).

But when we delve further, and start looking at populations who receive more than very short sentences, we can see how what we have proposed for the under three month population probably does not fit for the rest of the under twelve month population. For example, Ministry data shows that people currently serving sentences of more than three months but less than six (around 12,000 people) serve an average of 4.2 months prison, meaning around 63 days of prison (due to sentencing discounts). Or take the even more serious population serving 6-12 months (around 5000 people). They serve an average of 142 days of prison, with almost 20% having committed a violent offence. A few days of unpaid work and voluntary referral to rehabilitation services is not, in our view, a credible alternative for either of these groups.

Therefore, we suggest two different approaches for these cohorts. For those serving between 3-6 months prison sentences, we suggest using six months deferred sentencing, with a standard twenty days of swift community punishment, combined with a requirement to participate in a rehabilitation activity of no more than 15 days, seeking to address identified problems. This could be seeking to address housing, debt, mental health or substance misuse issues.

As with our insistence on swift community punishment, we also strongly argue that for these alternatives to be credible to sentencers, people need to be able to access services swiftly following sentence. We need to be able to take advantage of the teachable moments that arise in the course of an offender’s journey through the system. When we can get people into the right interventions at a time when they are ‘ready’ to change their behaviour, we can make a substantial difference and yet the justice process often fails to exploit these opportunities properly.

For the 6-12 month population, we think a different approach is needed. That is partly just the length of the sentences they currently serve but also because, unlike any of the other groups of prisoners we have mentioned, all these cases come from Crown Court. The very fact these offenders are going to Crown Court suggests there offending is of a more serious character and our response to that needs to be appropriately leveraged to reflect that.

We therefore recommend a nine month community order or suspended sentence order, reviewed every month by a judge, as an alternative to prison. Why this process of regular judicial monitoring, bringing offenders back to court for regular reviews with a designated judge at which their progress is discussed? In part, because the evidence surrounding this process suggests it works to reduce re-offending. For judges themselves, it means that rather than mandating offenders to a sentence, and then hearing little of the case except perhaps on breach, they are more actively engaged in the realities of community supervision through ongoing oversight.

Yet, aside from this regular judicial monitoring (which could be enabled under secondary legislation), these would be standard nine month community sentences. (One suggestion to reduce the burden of this ongoing monitoring on Crown Court judges is, following sentencing, for the Crown Court to send the case back to the magistrates’ court, and get specialist district judges to supervise the cases in magistrates’ courts.)

In addition, we can see that for both these cohorts, there may be grounds, for specific offenders, especially those who have committed violent offences, to deploy the use of electronic monitoring technology. There could be specific circumstances whereby electronic monitoring for a period would be additionally helpful, especially where there may be victim and violence considerations. We believe this would have public support: in some recent public opinion work we have done on the use of technology in the justice system, we found there is a majority of the public in favour of using electronic monitoring as an alternative to short term custody.

Yet in recommending the use of electronic monitoring, we need to be very clear about what we are not arguing for. First, electronic monitoring technologies should not be seen as a general substitute for human supervision. Nor should it be seen as a standalone replacement for prison. Replacing short prison sentences with thousands of offenders on tags is likely not to be effective- the breach rates will be high.

Instead, in our view, electronic monitoring can add to more general, human directed supervision. A drug test result, or sobriety score, or GPS data trail, can all serve as indicators for offender managers – not just ways of intervening with people, but ways to understand their behaviour, hold them accountable, and build more effective interventions. It may not, almost certainly won’t be appropriate for all offenders in these cohorts.

In proposing these options, we return to our basic principles about ensuring community safety and making our alternatives credible alternatives to the actual prison sentences people are currently serving. As we said at the outset, we don’t see reducing the short term prison population as THE solution to reducing the prison population but we can see how it could reduce the violence in our prisons by eliminating the disruption caused by their churn through the system. So, while the investment the Justice Secretary announced today is welcome, we still live in hope that he can announce additional investment in building credible alternatives to short prison sentences.

In our next blog, we will look at specific issues, such as around different provision for female offenders, in providing alternatives to the under twelve prison sentence population.