Prison: the facts (2018)

24/07/2018 16:01:00

The government should follow Scotland’s lead and introduce a presumption against short prison sentences as part of their efforts to restore safety and stability to our struggling jails according to a new briefing, Prison: the facts, published today by the Prison Reform Trust.

The briefing reveals the current scale of the challenge facing the government, with hundreds of people flowing in and out of the prison system on short sentences every week, placing pressure on an already overstretched and overcrowded prison system.

It shows that safety in prisons has deteriorated rapidly during the last six years, with more incidents of self-harm and assaults than ever before. 69 people also took their own lives in the 12 months to March 2018.

Recent inspections at HMPs Nottingham, Liverpool, Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth have all shown that problems with safety and overcrowding are particularly acute at local prisons, where large numbers of people are often held for short periods of time—often in poor living conditions, with limited access to rehabilitative courses and opportunities for staff to build constructive and supportive relationships with those in their care. 

In 2017 over 37,000 people entered prison to serve a sentence of less than a year, and latest figures show that nearly two-thirds will reoffend within a year of release. Four in five people sent to prison on short sentences last year had committed a non-violent offence.

Rather than tackling the issues contributing to a person’s offending, short spells behind bars can often make them worse, as people lose accommodation, jobs and families, without the time to tackle the issues that got them into trouble in the first place.

In Scotland the introduction of a presumption against the use of short custodial sentences of less than three months has seen a reduction in their use by a third since 2011, and sentences of between three and six months falling by 15%, whilst the number of community sentences has risen by 19%. The Scottish Government has also made a further commitment to extend this presumption to sentences of less than 12 months. Whilst courts are still free to pass short prison sentences, the presumption requires sentencers to record their reasons for doing so.

Meanwhile in England and Wales, recent reforms aimed at providing more support on release to people serving short sentences have, perversely, created further instability. Anyone leaving custody who has served two days or more is now required to serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision in the community. 

A series of reports have catalogued the failings of these ‘Through the Gate’ services. Last year 8,825 people on short sentences were recalled back to custody after their release due to breaching the terms of their licence conditions, often for a matter of a few short weeks. Highlighting the inadequacy of support provided to people on release, the House of Commons Justice Committee recently cautioned that “there is a risk that offenders now receive a £46 discharge grant and a leaflet rather than just £46.”

Recent statements by justice secretary David Gauke, and prisons minister Rory Stewart regarding the need to reduce the use of short prison sentences are extremely welcome, but both have stopped short of calling for the introduction of a legislative presumption, as is the case in Scotland. 

The Prison Reform Trust estimates that if a presumption was introduced it could see 13,500 fewer people entering prison each year—allowing vital breathing space for our prison system to focus on those who absolutely need to be there, whilst delivering better outcomes for victims, society, and people in trouble with the law.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“It has been good to hear both the Secretary of State for Justice and the minister with responsibility for sentencing speak in public about the futility of short prison sentences and the urgent need to reduce their use. This is true even for those cases where sentencers have ‘lost patience’ with a repeat offender—sending them to prison still makes matters worse in the long term. Ministers should follow their own evidence and introduce a presumption against the use of these destructive sentences once and for all.”