Announcement of a presumption against short prison sentences, a major milestone towards ending the revolving door of crisis welcomed with caution and caveats

Please note that this is a re-upload due to technical issues of an earlier blog from October 2023.

“I have done 19 short prison sentences in the last 20 years. A lot of the time I didn’t get any interventions [to address] the problems that led me to being in custody – substance misuse, alcohol, drug addiction, homelessness. These are the reasons I was breaking the law – to try and get myself somewhere to live for the night, to fund my addiction and just to survive really.” RD member 

In 2018, we launched the Short Sighted campaign calling for legislation in England and Wales for a presumption against short prison sentences Why? Simply because they don’t work and are an extremely expensive policy failure. We know from the evidence and from our members that short sentences do more harm than good and that community orders are more effective at reducing reoffending. The Government’s own evidence shows that reconviction rates are lower for people on community orders than short sentences. The key is to addressing root causes which can range from substance misuse issues, mental ill health, domestic abuse and/or homelessness.  

Data in 2019 showed that of people sentenced to less than six months in custody: 

  • 3 in 5 report a drug or alcohol problem on arrival at prison.  
  • 1 in 4 are released homeless.  
  • 7 in 10 reoffend within a year of release.  

Public polling we commissioned at the time showed that;  

  • 80% of the public think that theft of daily essentials such as food, sanitary products and nappies does not warrant a prison sentence. This was true for voters across all the major parties.  
  • 74% of the public think people with drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes instead of prison.  
  • The majority of voters said they were likely to vote for an MP candidate that supported reducing prison populations and using the savings to invest in drug treatment and mental health programmes (only 16% said they were unlikely to do so). Each of the major parties had more people likely to support this policy than unlikely to do so. 

The then Justice Minister David Gauke looked at the evidence and sensibly announced limits on the use of short sentences to reduce reoffending and cut costs. Five days later he resigned and much to our disappointment the plans were scrapped. We continued pushing for a presumption with little traction in Government despite the overwhelming evidence supporting our case.  

Pre-pandemic the justice system was already creaking. Fast forward six years and it is at breaking point. The prison population is at a record high of 88,225 and the entire prison system in England and Wales now has only 557 spaces left. Coupled with this is a cost-of-living crisis and high levels of mental ill health and increasing poverty. Today, the current Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk has announced as part of a package of emergency measures the intention to introduce a presumption against short sentences.  

Given this is one of our core policy aims this is welcome news but we welcome it with extreme caution. A presumption against short sentences alone is meaningless unless the Government also works to strengthen community sentences so that they both command public confidence and are better able to deal effectively with some of the underlying causes of persistent, petty offending, including problems with drugs and/or alcohol and mental ill-health. 

There are several things the Government can do as part of this measure to ensure it has the desired effect.  

  1. Pre-arrest diversion should be prioritised to divert people out of the criminal justice system because of unmet health and social needs, and this should be linked into services in the community.  
  1. The dramatic decrease in community sentences over the past decade needs to be addressed and this can be done through high quality, person centered, timely and consistent pre-sentence reports.  
  1. Intensive Supervision Courts that take a problem-solving approach should be rolled out more extensively and Community Sentence Treatment Requirements (CSTRs) which tackle substance misuse and mental ill-health need to be used more widely, including the use of combined orders.  
  1. This is also a time to refresh Liaison and Diversion services to do more of the diversion element in police stations and courts.  

We work across all of these areas with our members and know what needs to be done to make these areas fit for purpose to end the revolving door of crisis and crime.  

So, while the introduction of a presumption against short sentences is a significant step forward, it’s important to remember that there is much work ahead. Implementing this change effectively and ensuring that the right support structures are in place will be paramount.