‘Stopping short?’ Sentencing reform and short prison sentences

Tuesday, 13 August, 2019

This summer was expected to be a pivotal moment in sentence reform, with the expectation that former Justice Minister, David Gauke, would publish a White Paper to introduce proposals to restrict the use of short sentences. But with a new Prime Minister, a new Justice Secretary, and a ‘tough’ approach to law and order being ushered in, the future of reforming short-term prison sentences is at best uncertain.

The latest report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies outlines the case for reforming short prison sentences as presented by the Ministry of Justice to date and the practical issues introducing a presumption or ban on short prison sentences would raise. 

Stopping short?’ Sentencing reform and short prison sentences finds:  

  • The target for reform was relatively managerial. The intended saving was principally to an overstretched prison staff rather than to reduce capacity in the prison estate.

Detailed scenario planning carried out specifically for this report suggest that abolishing all prison sentences under 12 months may help to reduce the ‘churn’ in the system, but it would only reduce the prison population by around 2,470. By contrast, an across the board 20 per cent cut in all prison sentence lengths would could lead to a 7,400 reduction in the prison population.

  • Even to achieve this modest impact would be far from straight forward.  

A presumption, unless the exceptionalism is clearly worded and the nettle of non-custodial responses to persistence grasped, risks simply continuing the status quo use of prison rather than disrupting it. A bar may have the surface appeal of bold certainty. But a bar would replace a continuum of sentencing options with a model with a gap and a significant risk of unintended consequences in terms of up-tariffing.

The report also evidences the limited impact the Scottish presumption against three-month prison sentences, implemented in 2011, has had on sentencing practice.

Given the latest moves by the new Prime Minister to increase police numbers and provide 10,000 new prison spaces, even these modest reforms are unlikely to find favour with the current administration.

If restricting access to short-term prison sentences is not progressed, this would be more significant for what it symbolises about the current policy environment for law and order. As the report suggests, ‘It is the punitive rhetoric that this reform appears to have been the victim of, rather than a loss in terms of the practical difference this constrained policy agenda is likely to have been able to achieve, which is concerning.’

The report can be read here