Let’s talk time: public opinion of sentencing

In this blog, our lived experience member, David, explores the impact of negative perceptions and language on people coming into contact with the criminal justice system. David discusses why challenging them is essential to support people out of the cycle of crisis and crime, drawing on his experience of giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee.

Unless you choose the justice system for a career, be it legal or illegal, the chances are you will only know what you read or hear in the media. The media, however, are more like label makers using terms such as “lags” and “convicts”, which distract the public’s attention from the unmet health and social needs that drive people into a cycle of crisis and crime: mental-ill health, poverty, alcohol and/or substance use, trauma, and abuse.

One of the major groans the public seems to have, is around sentence lengths and how lenient our courts appear to be. However, in a survey commissioned by the Sentencing Academy and launched by the Prison Reform Trust, it shows that since 1996 sentence lengths have increased. Between 2009 – 2019, sentence lengths grew from an average of 13.8 months in 2009 to 18.9 months in 2019. However, in the survey report it states “when asked whether the average prison sentence had become longer, stayed the same or became shorter during this time, 75% of those who expressed a view believed that sentences had become shorter—the opposite of what has happened.”

Statistics in the summer 2022 edition of the Prison Reform Trusts’ Bromley Briefings show that in 2021 over 42,000 people were sentenced to prison. Of those, 61% had committed a non-violent offence and 38% were given sentences of six months or less. Of the approximately 42,000 people sentenced to prison, the number of women sent to prison was 4,806, 75% of whom were sentenced to prison terms of 2 years or less and 50% of whom were given sentences of 6 months or less. Although this is about sentencing, were you aware that in prison today there are over 14,000 people on remand (i.e., they haven’t been convicted) and of those, over 50% will NOT receive a custodial sentence, begging the question “why on earth were they in prison to begin with?”.

Against this backdrop, understanding the experiences of those who have been trapped in the criminal justice system is essential to dispel wide misconceptions. This is why Revolving Doors participated in the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into the public’s opinion and understanding of sentencing. In November 2022, along with another member of the Lived Experience Team at Revolving Doors, I attended an online roundtable with the Justice Select Committee.

It was another incredible day amongst many as a lived experience team member at Revolving Doors. However, this one was that little bit more special, as twice from in prison, and once out here, I had three written evidence submissions published on the committee’s website on three separate inquiries: Prison Population 2020, Prison Reform, and Transforming Rehabilitation. However, I hadn’t been fortunate enough to have been invited in to give oral evidence. Fourth time lucky.

This time around, the Committee were carrying out an inquiry into the public’s opinion and understanding of sentencing.

Chair of the Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP, and his colleague, Dr. Kieran Mullen MP were asking the questions, which included:

  • What does the public know about the current approach to sentencing in England and Wales?
  • How does the public access information on sentencing?
  • To what extent does public understanding of sentencing affect public confidence in the criminal justice system?
  • To what extent should public opinion inform sentencing policy and practice?

Emily, who also gave evidence to the Committee, reflected:

“I feel very honoured and proud of having the chance to speak to the Justice Select Committee in regard to sentencing. I was able to share my story and views on sentencing with no judgement and I really do feel they were very receptive to what I had to say”.

Based on what I have written, my advice to the public is don’t believe everything you read (if anything other than the sports results, and even that’s looking dodgy with what’s currently happening in snooker). If you are interested in the justice system, then you should look behind the headlines and the language used by the media to get the real story. This is why we will continue to advocate for lived experience voices to be front and centre in the public debate on criminal justice reform and sentencing. As for my appearance at the Justice Select Committee’s roundtable, the letter I received from Bob Neill MP speak for itself.