10:38, February 18 116 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-18 10:38:05
‘Prison isn’t working’: David Gauke calls for end to short jail terms

The justice secretary has said he wants to end short prison sentences because they do not work and hopes that technology and more community sentences will provide better alternatives to jail.

In a break with the “prison works” mantra of past Conservative governments, David Gauke outlined the plans which reformers hope will be more than just talk.

Gauke used a central London speech to point out that Britain jails more people compared with other European countries and that those sentenced to short terms in prison have high reoffending rates.

“In the last five years, just over a quarter of a million custodial sentences have been given to offenders for six months or less; over 300,000 sentences were for 12 months or less. But nearly two-thirds of those offenders go on to commit a further crime within a year of being released.

“Why would we spend taxpayers’ money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, makes us less safe?”

He cited the example of female shoplifters jailed for short terms which often blights their life chances on release. “For women, going into custody often causes huge disruption to the lives of their families, especially dependent children, increasing the risk [the children] will also fall into offending.”

Gauke said tough community orders should be backed up by tagging and could mandate treatment for underlying causes of offending such as alcohol, drugs or mental health issues. Five pilot schemes have been set up.

“Our research shows that nearly 60% of recent offenders who engaged with a community-based alcohol programme did not go on to reoffend in the two years following treatment. Offenders given a community sentence including mental health treatment have also shown to be significantly less likely to reoffend.”

Sentences had been getting longer, he added. “We are now taking a more punitive approach than at any point during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. We should be extremely cautious about continuing to increase sentences as a routine response to concerns over crime.

“For the offenders completing these short sentences whose lives are destabilised, and for society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working.

“That’s why there is a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, and put in their place a robust community order regime.”

Gauke challenged the view that prison after conviction should be the only punishment for more serious offences. “I believe we are nearing a time when a combination of technology and radical thinking will make it possible for much more intensive and restrictive conditions to be applied in more creative and fundamental ways outside of prison.

“I think for some offenders we need to revisit what effective punishment really means. Home curfew, driving bans, alcohol bans and foreign travel bans are just some of the options that already exist and which might play a bigger role.”

He said that fraudsters spend a spell in jail but still may enjoy the money they stole on release: “I want to look at what happens after prison – whether more effective punishment and deterrent for these criminals might involve jail time and more lasting and punitive community interventions.”

Conservative MP Philip Davies branded the plans as “frankly idiotic” and said: “In virtually every case, the offender has been given community sentence after community sentence, and they are only sent to prison because they have failed to stop their offending. So to give them community sentences instead is bonkers.”

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