There is considerable opposition to short prison sentences these days. Most criminologists have long been convinced of their pointlessness and now politicians are showing signs of being persuaded as well. The argument has already been won in Scotland  and Rory Stewart, Minister of State with responsibility for prisons, probation and sentencing, recently argued that very short jail terms are ‘long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you. You bring somebody in for three or four weeks, they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation. …  The public are safer if we have a good community sentence … and it will relieve a lot of pressure on prisons.’  The effects of a short sentence can be especially damaging for women and their children. Less discussed, perhaps, but quite as significant, is the effect that short sentences have on the management of the prison estate. A rapid throughput is resource-intensive and diverts staff time from other activities. As Stewart says, they bring a lot of pressure.

This is a campaign that should be supported, but it is not without its limitations. Stewart favours ‘good community sentences’, but others have urged longer sentences to counter the destructive consequences of short ones (see quotations cited by Rob Allen ).  Indeed much of the political rhetoric deployed in advocating against short sentences carries the implication that valuable rehabilitative work could be undertaken if people were in prison for longer. While there is no doubt that some people have gained from imprisonment, this is far from the usual experience. For the great majority, imprisonment obstructs desistance by closing down or at best postponing the opportunities to lead a life in which offending has no place. Personal relationships, employment, accommodation, health – these are all prejudiced by imprisonment and ‘programmes’ (for all the benefits that they sometimes bring for some people) can’t do anything to offset this. We should not be seduced by the implication that longer sentences can ‘heal you’: in our prisons as they are, they don’t; and in principle they couldn’t.

If there were to be a presumption against short sentences of imprisonment, the courts and the public would need to be assured that community sentences were rigorously enforced as well as demanding – no doubt at least part of what is meant by a good community sentence.  An unenforced (or poorly enforced) community sentence would be recognised as no punishment at all. Penalties for non-compliance would also be likely to be steeper – no doubt leading to more imprisonment (for short terms?). And the tougher the sentence, the more demands that are made, the greater the chances of default.  This is the formula:

Tough sentences  + tougher enforcement  =  more breach = more imprisonment. 

The most effective way to reduce the prison population is by reducing the length of sentences. In one sense, this is perfectly straightforward. Let us suppose an initiative to reduce the length of all sentences by 10%. A sentence of 20 months would be reduced to 18 months. In terms of ‘just deserts’ no one could plausibly argue that 20 months is just right, but 18 won’t do. And does anyone think that a potential offender would be undeterred by four-and-a-half years, but would be stopped by the prospect of five? Or that a rehabilitative intervention, which could not be achieved within 32 months, would be effective in three years? Even for the most dangerous offenders, it seems odd to suppose that the public is protected by detaining someone for ten years but safety would be jeopardised by releasing them after only nine.

If all sentences were reduced by 10% the prison population would – quite quickly – decline by 10%. In England and Wales this would make a massive difference to conditions and increase the scope for working usefully with prisoners. It’s a perfectly feasible approach which violates no legal or moral principle. Why then is it politically impossible? My next posting will try to explore one dimension of that question.

Against short prison sentences – and long ones

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