Since Michael Howard’s infamous 1993 speech the “prison works” mantra has dominated public, political and media discourses and underpinned successive government’s policies. Over the last decade, the use of short custodial sentences has remained stubbornly high, with over half of immediate custodial sentences given for less than 6 months and one in eight for less than a month. The majority of short sentences are for relatively minor and non-violent offences such as theft and summary non-motoring offences.
100 members of our lived experience forums told us that repeat criminal justice contact is driven by multiple unmet needs, such as mental ill-health, problematic substance use, homelessness and domestic abuse. They told us that short prison sentences are particularly damaging – they do not provide enough time to rehabilitate, and disrupt housing, healthcare, family ties and employment and drive reoffending by turning difficult life circumstances into complete chaos. Forum members urged us to co-deliver a campaign against short prison sentences a policy priority – that is how our #Shortsighted campaign kicked off in March 2018.
At the start of our campaign we focussed on evidence. We got the evidence on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, around short prison sentences, and the frequency with which they were being used. We then looked to public opinion, we commissioned an independent poll that showed four out of five people opposed the use of prison for theft – the most common offence for which people are given short prison sentences for. More surprisingly, the public strongly backed reducing the prison population and investing the money in drug treatment and mental health programmes instead.
Despite this the “prison works” mantra was maintained by some aspects of the media, seemingly constraining the government’s willingness to act. So, we aimed to develop a new positive shift in the media discourse to support a cross-party consensus on restricting the use of short custodial sentences.
We are a small but ambitious team at Revolving Doors, and our #Shortsighted campaign is a testament to our obsession with impact. We delivered the campaign on less than 10% of one full time equivalent over the course of year, with a budget of slightly less than £6K. Central to our approach was doing what we do best – building a powerful coalitions between people with lived experience and decision-makers and combining robust research evidence and lived experience insight to deliver change.
We built a coalition of charities, MPs, peers, PCCs and sector commentators of supporters. We generated media interest through data obtained under the Freedom of Information, polling of public and parliamentarians and cost analysis to support our key messages, and building a media contact book as we went. Here’s an infographic of our campaign timeline.
Here’s what we achieved:
A 8-fold increase in the amount of media coverage on short sentences, as well as a trend towards more positive coverage. Our campaign was covered across newspapers (including the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and Independent), television (BBC News, Channel 4, Sky News) and radio programmes (including BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 5, LBC, and Talk Radio).
A strong cross-party consensus on restricting the use of short prison sentences by securing two Westminster Hall debates, numerous parliamentary questions and supporting statements from the Justice Select Committee members. Our poll found 70% of MPs in the previous parliament backed a presumption against short prison sentences of less than six months for non-violent offences.
Significant policy shift to restrict the use of short prison sentences, including the GMCA Police and Crime Plan (March 2018), Female Offenders Strategy (June 2018), London Assembly Police and Crime Committee (July 2018), Strengthening Probation, Building Confidence Consultation response (July 2018), as well as continued investment in CSTRs.
As a result of our campaign, the Ministry of Justice Single Departmental Plan (July 2019) continues to include a commitment to restrict the use of short prison sentences for non-violent offences. The opposition parties are also committed to supporting a presumption against short prison sentences under six months.
The government once again talks about the need to ‘get tough on crime’ and the need to keep ‘dangerous people’ away from the public. That may be true for some prisoners, but not for those on short sentences. Our campaign Short-sighted showed that those serving short prison sentences are some of the most vulnerable prisoners with over 80% cycling in and out of prison for theft offences driven by addiction, homelessness and domestic coercion and abuse. It is obvious that we are not using short prison sentences to protect the public from ‘dangerous criminals’ or to effectively reduce crime. So, the question remains: what purpose do they really serve?
If we are serious about reducing crime, reducing victims, we need to get smarter. The Ministry of Justice already has evidence that shows community sentences are much more effective in reducing reoffending than short prison sentences. We will continue to push for government action so that they can deliver on their evidence with strong public support behind them. With the government’s sentencing white paper on the horizon, we know that the campaign has to continue.