Save lives – prevent the use of short prison sentences

Nathan Dick

The churn of people going in and out of prison is extraordinarily high and poses an unmanageable risk of people carrying Covid-19 from prisons, back into communities, and back into prison again.

Like all keyworkers and policy makers we have been working hard to understand the impact of Covid-19. For us the question is how we support the men and women caught in the revolving door during this pandemic. These are people suffering multiple disadvantage, a combination severe deprivation, drug addiction, homelessness, and mental ill-health. We know they churn through the criminal justice system (especially our prisons) at breakneck speed. We know services are stretched. We know that people in the revolving door are at great risk of infection and death. That’s why we are calling for unprecedented government action to save lives.

We need to temporarily stop short prison sentences; limiting the rapid churn of people vulnerable to Covid-19 in and out of prison to keep the prison staff and prisoners safe.

Last week we wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice and Chair of the Sentencing Council to ask that they make a clear statement that Magistrates and Crown Courts in England and Wales prioritise community and suspended sentences ahead of short custodial sentences of 6 months or less for all non-violent and non-sexual offences, and where community alternatives do not present a risk of harm to the public. This week we have built a coalition of over 50 charities, academics, Police and Crime Commissioners and politicians that support our call. If you want to sign up your support click here.

The government should also urge the reduction of recall on license for breach of Post-Sentence Supervision, which is often only sending someone back into prison for 14 days. Again, this should be done alongside probation services and with public safety in mind.

The case for action

  • Over 44,000 prison sentences of less than six months were handed out last year. This represents nearly half of all people sent to prison to serve a sentence.
  • The churn for people serving these sentences is extraordinarily high, 68% of people who are sentenced to less than six months in prison reoffend within a year of release[1], and 82% of people sent to prison for less than 6 months for theft offences are convicted again within a year of release[2].
  • People experiencing homelessness are 10 times more likely to have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and 34 times more likely to have tuberculosis. Nearly a quarter of people serving short prison sentences under six months have been released homeless last year[3]. The spread of communicable disease can be swift for people without adequate access to hygiene facilities or a safe home.
  • 70% of shop thefts are driven by drug addiction[4] which is known to increase the risk of respiratory and blood-borne diseases.
  • Women in prison, two thirds of whom serve short sentences under six months, are 5 times more likely to be HIV+ compared to the general population[5].
  • Every three months over 5,000 people start a prison sentence of less than six months[6] for a non-violent offence, such as theft. These men and women suffer from a combination of severe deprivation, drug addiction, homelessness, and mental ill-health
  • We estimate that during the peak of pandemic up to 2,000 people with Covid-19 will arrive in prison to for a stay of 3 months.

The majority people serving sentences of less than six months are in prison for non-violent offences, most commonly for theft. Our polling suggests a majority (74%) oppose the use of prison for petty crime, and at this time of national emergency it makes even more sense.

The government could go further still. It can and should legislate to temporarily suspend prison sentences of 6 months or less, for certain non-violent and non-sexual offences, and place strict measures to review the efficacy of that legislation.

No matter what action government take, we need to review the impact of decisions made. If short sentences are suspended, we could review the impact on re-offending and health outcomes. On the other hand, if we do nothing, we need to assess the impact of continuing to send people to prison for short sentences during a pandemic; the impact on re-offending, and the rates of death amongst those prisoners.  

Lived experience member Robert says:

“I have been in and out prison since I was seventeen, and probably served 15-20 short prison sentences under six months. I have 52 criminal convictions, mostly for drug offences and some theft and other acquisitive crimes. I know, for a fact, all was driven by my drug and alcohol addiction.”

“Short prison sentences clearly did not stop me from reoffending. If anything, they were a break from all the madness in my life – homelessness, addiction and serious debt. I would go in and out of prison, doing the same thing again and again. Any support with drugs and alcohol I had in community stopped when I went to prison. I didn’t access any support in prison and certainly there was no planning when I was released. I considered myself lucky if I had been sent to a hostel, even though I knew I was put back into the same environment that put me into prison in the first place.”

“Coronavirus is a huge worry, because prisons are full of old people, sick people and drug addicts with low immune systems. It is sad that people don’t consider prisons worthy of protection. Yes, they have committed crimes, but most are there because they have fallen into tough times. They do not deserve to be sentenced to poor health and misery.”

Our coalition of supporters

1.         Rt Hon. Lord Bradley

2.         Lord Ramsbotham, CBE

3.         The Lord Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek

4.         David Jamieson, The PCCs for West Midlands

5.         Matthew Ellis, The PCC for Staffordshire

6.         Hardyal Dhindsa, The PCC for Derbyshire

7.         Steve White, The acting PCC for Durham

8.         Paddy Tipping, The PCC for Nottinghamshire

9.         Julia Mulligan, The PCC for North Yorkshire

10.         Mark Burns-Williamson, The PCC for West Yorkshire

11.       David Munro, The PCC for Surrey

12.       Sara Llewellin, Barrow Cadbury Trust

13.       Duncan Shrubsole, Lloyds Foundation Trust

14.       Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe, University of Cambridge

15.       Professor Ben Crewe, University of Cambridge

16.       Professor Jane Millar, University of Bath

17.       Professor Nicola Padfield, University of Cambridge

18.       Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Heriot Watt University

19.       Christina Marriott, Revolving Doors Agency

20.       Anne Fox, Clinks

21.       Campbell Robb, Nacro

22.       Nicky Park, St Giles Trust

23.       Helen Schofield, Probation Institute

24.       Charlotte Pickles, Reform

25.       Joy Doal, Anawim

26.       Jemima Olchawski, Agenda

27.       Siobhan Pollitt, Back on Track

28.       Ralph Findlay, Blast Foundation

29.      Kirsty Kitchen, Birth Companions

30.       Lisa Dando, Brighton Women’s Centre

31.       Mustak Mirza, BSMHFT

32.       Deborah Padfield, Cambridgeshire County Council

33.       Richard Garside, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

34.       Nina Champion, Criminal Justice Alliance

35.       Oliver Standing, Collective Voice

36.       Laura Seebohm, Changing Lives

37.       Anna Herrman, Cleanbreak

38.       Emma Wells, Community Chaplaincy Association

39.       Nicola Plumb, Empowerment Charity

40.       Darren Murinas, Expert Citizens CIC

41.       Katie Logue, FLIC (Single Homelessness Project)

42.       Jo Rogers, Fulfilling Lives

43.       Laura Guy, Fulfilling Lives/ Single Homelessness Project

44.       Diane Smith, Fulfilling Lives Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham

45.       Tom Hayden, Good Shepherd Services

46.       Rick Henderson, Homeless Link

47.      Natalie Wilks, Jonah’s Project CIC

48.      AntonShelupanov, Justice Studio

49.       Karyn Kirkpatrick, Keyring

50.       Oliver Hilbery, MEAM

51.      Christopher D’Souza, London Borough of Lambeth

52.       Jo-Anne Welsh, Oasis Project

53.      Claire Hubberstey, One Small Thing

54.       Deonne Peters, Opportunity Nottingham

55.       Paul Parker, Quakers in Britain

56.       James Found, Shelter

57.       Alice Dawnay, SwitchBack

58.       Caroline Carr, The New Leaf Initiative

59.       Niki Gould, The Nelson Trust

60.       Christopher Stacey, Unlock

61.      Clare Simms, The View Magazine

62.      Kate Paradine, Women in Prison 

63.       Natasha Finlayson, Working Chance

64.       Imtiaz Amin, The Zahid Mubarek Trust

65.       Dr Jane Dominey, University of Cambridge

66.       Dr Amy Ludlow, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge

67.       Dr Christopher Padfield, University of Cambridge

68.       Dr Shona Minson, University of Oxford

69.       Dr Beth Watts, Heriot Watt University


[1] Ministry of Justice. 2019. “Reoffence Type Data Tool January-December 2016”. London. 424/Reoffence_type_data_tool.xlsx  

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ministry of Justice data obtained by Revolving Doors Agency under FOI Act ref. no 190122018.

[4] Centre for Social Justice. 2018. “Desperate for a fix”. CSJ: London.

[5] Revolving Doors Agency, Public Health England and Home Office. 2017. “Rebalancing Act”. Revolving Doors Agency: London.

[6] Ministry of Justice.2020. Prison Reception Data.