You are here: Together we are changing the use of short-sighted short sentences

They say, a week is a long time in politics – the last ten days have certainly felt like that in the criminal justice sector, as we began to see a sea change in the debate on the use of short custodial sentences. Two months on from the launch of our campaign #shortsighted together with our supporters we welcome the shift in the debate. 

First came the new the Ministry of Justice Analytical summary (17 May 2018) which provided evidence for the reoffending impact of short custodial sentences orders compared with similar cases where community orders were given. There are three key findings in relation to people in the revolving door of crisis and crime that are worth highlighting:

  • Among people who come to repeat contact with the criminal justice system, the odds of reoffending where short-term custody rather than a court order was given was 50% higher among young adults (18-21 year olds), 27% higher for 21-49 year olds and 72% higher for those over 50.
  • The use of court orders was associated with more benefit for people with mental ill health. In fact, mental health treatment requirements attached to court orders refused reoffending rate by 3.5%; and
  • Women serving short sentences are 5% more likely to reoffend compared to those under court orders.

On Saturday 26 May, the Justice Secretary David Gauke has told the Times that:

  • “The evidence shows that when the person has been inside for less than 12 months the reoffending rate is about 66 per cent, but the reoffending rate for those who get a non-custodial sentence is lower. Short sentences should be a last resort”;
  • Prison can be “absolutely the worst place” for people with ill mental health; and
  • Women in contact with the criminal justice system have multiple unmet needs, including high rates of domestic abuse, and confirmed that prison is “not always the right answer in terms of family issues.”

Then on Sunday 27 May, the Prisons Minister Rory Stewart was on the Sunday Politics Show who told the viewers that short custodial sentences are:

  • Ineffective: resulting in many to “cycle in and out of sentences”;
  • Indeed counterproductive: "The statistics demonstrate that sending someone to prison for a very short period makes them more likely to re-offend compared to community sentences. So it's not good for them and it's not good for public safety,"

Now that the criminal justice sector, the public, many politicians across the political spectrum and the Ministers agree that short custodial sentences are short sighted, what should happen next?

  • It is our view that the government should introduce a presumption against the use of short custodial sentences of less than six months.
  • Under these proposals offences that are serious and/or risk harm, such as domestic violence, can be dealt with appropriately by the courts.
  • At the same time there is a need to strengthen community sentences so that they command public confidence and are able to deal effectively with some of the underlying causes of persistent, petty offending, including drug or alcohol misuse and mental health. However, there is no value in continuing with the failed policy of short sentences while we wait.

Briefing Paper

Short sentences are short sighted

The public and the evidence are clear and in agreement: Short prison sentences are ineffective at tackling petty crime. We can do better and should adopt a smarter approach.