A perennial issue for Ministers and Governments is the gap between deciding what the world should look like and making it happen. Rory Stewart’s announcement that the Government is “looking very carefully” at imposing a new legal presumption against prison sentences of less than six months is welcome news, the result of much tireless campaign work by a number of groups. However, it is also merely the next round in what could be a difficult slog toward implementation.
Part of the challenge ahead is pure party politics. With Parliament on the daily verge of a collective breakdown, finding the parliamentary time let alone the votes to pass enabling legislation is tricky. Mr Stewart’s move would be a radical departure from over thirty years of constant prison sentencing inflation. Convincing enough of his own backbenchers let alone getting enough votes from the opposition will be itself a herculean task. Reducing the short sentenced prison population alone will not immediately reverse the problems of violence and overcrowding in our prisons. People at the Ministry and Treasury should not bank that the number of people going to short sentences will dramatically reduce the overall number of people in prison overnight.
Nonetheless, Mr Stewart should be commended for indicating his direction of travel. As justice reform sage Rob Allen highlights in a blog over the weekend, there are a number of sentencing policy issues to work through to determine exactly how a new legal presumption should work. Alongside those legislative measures, we at the Centre have focused our energies over the past few months on the range of community-based measures that need to be available. In our response to the recent probation consultation, we have set out a range of measures, including expanding the use of deferred sentences, allowing offenders to access interventions and complete unpaid work after which, if successfully completed, the court could dismiss the case entirely. We have argued for the piloting of the use of judge led problem-solving orders, whereby a community order or suspended sentence order would be reviewed every month by a judge.In order for probation services to undertake these additional cases, we have also set out a number of measures to reduce the caseload burden on probation services, including reducing the length of community sentences for low risk offenders.
Yet we also recognise it would not be enough simply to legislate and develop new community options. Alongside these, new efforts must be made to ensure that these options are properly communicated to courts. Our recent report, Renewing Trust, looks at how we can improve the relationship between probation and courts, a relationship damaged not just by reforms to probation but indirectly made worse by attempts by the court service to increase efficiency and speed. The unintended consequence of speed in courts has been to dilute the amount of time probation have to do their best in assessing risk and placing people on sentences that are fit for purpose. Our report highlights new innovations developed on the frontline that have tried to find fixes to the problems caused both by the poorly implemented privatisation of probation and the court service’s over-emphasis on efficiency.
The Government can’t try and solve every problem in order to solve one. For those of us who want to see justice reform, our job is not just to highlight new ideas and new innovations on the ground but provide, in whatever way we can, public support for progressive moves toward a smarter justice system. So let’s make it happen.