The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill entered Parliament in March 2021. The Bill has proved highly controversial and has been met with a lot of activity from the voluntary sector since its introduction – namely for a number of provisions that will have a highly negative impact on people in contact with the criminal justice system, Gypsy Roma Traveller communities, increase the long standing race disproportionality and undermine the right to protest.
Revolving Doors has been approaching the Bill from the perspective of people who are caught in a revolving door of crisis and crime – with experiences of homelessness, trauma, poverty, mental ill health, and substance misuse often leading to repeat contact with the criminal justice system. For this reason, we chose to focus on police cautions, and short prison sentences whilst lending our support to colleagues working on wider issues.
With the Bill in Committee Stage in the House of Lords, we were delighted to have the support of the Bishop of Gloucester, Lords Dubs and Beith, Baroness Meacher and other peers who co-sponsored and spoke in favour of the amendments on cautions and short prison sentences in the debates earlier this week.
Short sentences and the Bill
Despite repeated calls from both within and outside of Government to end short prison sentences, the Bill contains no such provision.
From January 2020 to March 2021, 44% of adults entering prison were starting a sentence of 6 months or less. For women, this figure goes up to 55%. Just last week, the Ministry of Justice released data showing that from October to December 2016, people released from prison after serving a sentence of 6 months or less had a 61.6% reoffending rate.
A vast majority of people serving short prison sentences are serving sentences for low-level offences such as theft and drug offences. These people are often stuck in a revolving door between crisis and crime, coming in and out of prison without the interventions necessary to turn their lives around.
“The majority of people serving sentences of six months or less are in prison for non-violent offences, such a theft and drug offences. These offences are often linked to underlying issues such as poverty, addiction, homelessness and poor mental health. We know that these people really should not be in prison at all. Prison does not help them.” – Lord Dubs, House of Lords, 18th November 2021.
Back in 2018, we launched a campaign to introduce a presumption against prison sentences of 6 months or less. Our campaign received widespread support and subsequently the then Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, and Justice Secretary, David Gauke, both publicly backed abolishing prison sentences of 6 months or less. In Scotland, a presumption against short prison sentences of 3 months or less has been in place since 2011, and was increased to 12 months or less in 2019, with no negative implications having been recorded.
“I used to chair the Justice Committee in the House of Commons, and that has had a continuing interest in this problem. Its report in 2018 recommended that the Government introduce a presumption against short prison sentences. The Government welcomed this and said they were exploring options. In a follow-up report, the Justice Committee noted the Government’s stated intentions to move away from short custodial sentences.” – Lord Beith, House of Lords, 18th November 2021.
Short prison sentences are less effective at reducing reoffending than community sentences, cost more than community sentences, and do little to address the drivers of crime that lead to people being caught up in the revolving door of crisis and crime. One lived experience member, when asked about short prison sentences, said:
“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. 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.” – Revolving Doors Lived Experience Member
“We know that community sentences are far more effective at reducing reoffending than short prison sentences and cost far less than a prison place. How have we reached a place in the UK in which imprisonment is so overused and seen as a solution to all criminal justice problems when the evidence and data simply do not support this?” – Lord Bishop of Bristol speaking on behalf of the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, House of Lords, 18th November 2021.
The time for talking about abolishing short prison sentences is over, and it is time to take decisive action. That is why we supported Lord Dubs to table an amendment to the PCSC Bill that will introduce a presumption against short prison sentences of 6 months or less.
“This is not a blanket ban on short sentences; it is a presumption against short sentences. Previous Governments have supported this idea. The evidence is that short sentences do not lessen offending. They are mainly concerned with non-violent offences. They do not provide meaningful rehabilitation. They can have a disruptive effect on family life and relationships.” – Lord Dubs, House of Lords, 18th November 2021
If successful, this amendment will require courts, is passing a sentence of 6 months or less, to justify that no community alternative was appropriate. If courts do pass a prison sentence of 6 months or less, they must state their reasons for no other sentence being appropriate, and enter that reason into a record of their proceedings.
Cautions and the Bill
The PCSC Bill would introduce a two-tier framework to out of court disposals, with police being able to give both ‘diversionary’ and ‘community’ cautions. Unlike the current out of court disposal framework, where some disposals do not have to have conditions attached to them, both of these cautions would come with mandatory conditions. Our concern is that these conditions can be unnecessarily punitive, or arbitrary – setting people up to fail and leading them straight back into contact with the criminal justice system.
“It is an issue that the conditions attached to these cautions can be poorly conceived and become either unnecessarily restrictive or, indeed, not sufficiently rehabilitative in order to help people to avoid reoffending. This amendment is intended to improve and clarify what is already presented in the Bill” – Lord Bishop of Durham on behalf of the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, House of Lords, 11th November 2021.
We spoke to our New Generation Campaigners, young adults with experience of repeat police contact, about conditions attached to cautions:
“Rather than condition it could be an ‘intervention’ – something that’s going to be helpful”
“Unpaid work should be accredited – it should give them accreditation, certificate, helping to upskill them. Unpaid work should be meaningful”
One campaigner told us of a condition where they were banned from public transport despite relying on it to get to school:
“I used to have get two buses to school, and then I was banned from public transport. How else was I meant to get to school? I was taken to court for still being on public transport”
The campaigners discussed useful conditions that could be attached to cautions, including alcohol awareness courses, family counselling sessions, and signposting to services that could help with financial issues and poverty – all of which could address the core drivers of crime and ultimately reduce reoffending.
Our analysis shows us that although young adults only constitute 10% of the population, they receive 31% of all cautions for ‘revolving door’ pattern offences. People in the revolving door are characterised by repeated low-level, non-violent offences, such as theft and minor drug offences, driven by multiple unmet needs, including mental ill health, problematic substance use, homelessness and domestic abuse. Their health, care and offending related needs go hand in hand with trauma, persistent poverty, long-term unemployment, and social exclusion. It is essential that cautions serve not just as a punitive measure for young adults, but as methods of effectively diverting young adults away from the revolving door of crisis and crime.
“This particular amendment raises a problem with this part of the Bill. One can understand why putting in a condition or requirement in relation to the victims might appeal to a certain type of politician, but they forget that, if you are legislating, you need balance. Why put something in about victims without putting something in about the whole point of this, which is to try to deal with offending?” – Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, House of Lords, 11th November 2021.
For this reason, we supported the Lord Bishop of Gloucester to table an amendment that will require the person giving a caution to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the conditions of the caution support the person receiving it to break the cycle of crisis and crime, through supportive interventions.
We will continue to support parliamentarians to push for these crucial changes to be made through the next stages of the bill as well as lobby the Government to form progressive evidence based policy so badly needed to work towards breaking the cycle of crisis and crime.