We must move away from short prison sentences – they don’t work

Ellie Reeves
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

It is no secret that our prison system is currently failing. The prison population has grown significantly over the last 25 years, but the Ministry of Justice has borne the brunt of the government’s austerity agenda with 40% real terms cuts to its budget. Too many prison sentences are currently completely devoid of meaningful rehabilitation, and the welfare of prisoners is cause for real concern. Prisons up and down the country are in a state of disrepair and just this week, the government has been forced to bring HMP Birmingham back under public ownership due to repeated failures by its private operator.

Widespread change is urgently needed to improve standards in our prison system, but we also must look at how we use prison as a means of dealing with offenders. Every year, over 60,000 adults receive a short prison sentence of less than 12 months and nearly half of all people sent to prison are sent there for less than six months. Prison must exist to rehabilitate, but if those who are given custodial sentences are only in the system for a matter of weeks, it comes as little surprise that evidence of meaningful rehabilitation for this cohort is few and far between.

The bottom line is that short sentences don’t work, and nobody benefits from them. A good measure of their effectiveness is examining the reoffending rates of those who have been given short custodial sentences. The Ministry of Justice’s latest figures have shown that adults released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months had a proven reoffending rate of 64%. To compare this with the average of all adult offenders, where the reoffending rate is 28%, shows how staggeringly ineffective the current model is.

Whilst any justice system seeks to reduce reoffending to a minimum and, ideally, we would like to see much lower rates across the board, the fact that nearly two thirds of adults sentenced to less than a year go on to reoffend shows that the system is no longer working as it should. We cannot leave this cohort of offenders to be left in a cycle of imprisonment and reoffending.

The Justice Select Committee’s previous report on Transforming Rehabilitation, published in June 2018, recommended that the government should introduce a presumption against short custodial sentences. I have recently made repeated calls in parliament for this to be implemented and ministers have shown some welcome engagement on this issue by signalling a move to avoid sentences under six months. I am pleased that our latest report goes one step further and calls outright for this presumption to be extended to sentences of less than 12 months.

Community-based sentencing is where we should focus our efforts, particularly on those who have committed non-violent offences who make up a significant proportion of those given short sentences. To many, community sentencing sounds like a softer option, but the committee fully recognises that it is possible to create sentences that provide a balance between robustness and effectiveness. As the reoffending rates show, “tougher” custodial sentences do not mean effective results.

It has been shown that those who are given community-based sentences are far less likely to reoffend. The MoJ’s own research has shown that community sentences are particularly effective for people who have committed a large number of previous offences and those with mental health problems.

Moreover, the use of community sentencing limits the additional impacts they can have on wider aspects such as employment, housing and, particularly in the case of female prisoners, the destructive impact parental imprisonment can have on the welfare of children.

Unfortunately, the problems with privatisation in our justice system aren’t limited to our prisons. Community Rehabilitation Companies, the organisations tasked with managing offenders, are delivering minimal results at huge expense to the public purse. Labour has consistently called for these to be brought back under public ownership and when we achieve this, I believe we will have the foundations to create a community-based criminal justice system that finally gets to the crux of delivering comprehensive and meaningful rehabilitation.

The fixes required to resolve the issues in our justice system span right across the board, and ministers are starting to move in the right direction. Gone are the days when prison only existed to punish offenders. A progressive and modern justice system must be there to rehabilitate offenders and satisfy the public that sentences work. We recognise the changes that are needed, and my Justice Select Committee colleagues and I will continue to press the government on improving standards, tackling reoffending and modernising our justice system.

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