I would give up...short prison sentences and community payback

Tracey McMahon calls for the abolition of community payback and short prison sentences for summary offences.

By: 
Tracey McMahon
Date: 
Friday, 14 March, 2014

As a female serving a suspended sentence and an active voice in the rehabilitation arena, I have direct experience of the oppressive and destructive channels we are forced to overcome. I am self-employed and have experienced mostly, intelligent and forgiving people from varying arenas. However, the biggest obstacle I have faced is with first-hand experience of what is lacking in rehabilitative tools, is that of working with the very services that claim they have rehabilitation covered. Here are my thoughts on what should be abolished.

Short prison sentences for Summary Offences

The Prison Estate is packed to the rafters. There is little point in sending people to prison for short periods. Having spoken directly with women in particular, who have served short sentences; short-term prison sentences increases crime in order to survive. I have recently developed a programme that I intend to run in my town where services are lacking particularly for women. Short sentences cost the taxpayer immense amounts of money and nothing is gained from short sentences apart from an increased burden on the long-suffering taxpayer. A community-based alternative-to-prosecution for low-level summary offences (as recently piloted in Hull) has a far more productive outcome than a short prison sentence could possible achieve. Despite great moves to improve literacy in prison, there is absolutely no way a person can learn to read effectively in less than six months. A more tailored programme and gender-specific programmes will cut offending. If the government and the public insist on treating people who have the long arm of Regina pointing at them, with a lack of intelligence and respect, then what is reciprocated is likely to be the same.

Without a doubt, the abolishment of short-term prison sentences is necessary. They are costly, ineffective and do absolutely nothing to cut offending.  Bring in programmes to work with people and address the cause, not try to appease the effect.

High visual vests with 'Community Payback' displayed

I have worn a vest when I was ordered to undertake 60 hours community 'payback'. Despite the fact my community was not involved in the process whatsoever, these vests are the 21st century version of black and white striped prisoner outfits from bygone eras. These serve no purpose apart from ensuring the public see quite clearly that those who commit offences are being 'dealt with'. If you want to see parents steering their children away from the 'wrong uns' then these are the vests to do it. If community payback is a sentence, how hard can it be to make the sentence work both for the community and the person ordered to undertake work that benefits both? These high-visual vests are nothing to do with health and safety, only to 'punish' the person further.

The other aspect of community payback is that of the work. Often carried out geographically away from the direct community the person lives in, the time wasted is vast. I have experienced community payback, from 9am-3pm, the majority of time is spent waiting around to be collected by the van to be transported to the area of work. I specifically timed the hours worked in a six-hour period, this was two hours, and the rest spent travelling and waiting around for the course providers to appear. It does nothing to address offending behaviours or the cause of crime. Community payback has far more substance if used correctly.

There are many community projects, which will assist a disengaged person into re-engaging with their direct community. Much is made of restorative justice; why not use it to help communities come to terms with accepting those who have found themselves in a dock. Effective use of communities can install pride and care for those who have become disengaged. Abolish the current work arrangements and use the time more effectively.

Tracey McMahon is serving a suspended sentence. She is a feature writer at Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, a columnist at World Medical Times where she highlights the lack of health treatment for serving prisoners and is the author of “View from an Offender” at UK Criminal Law. Tracey contributed to Transforming Rehabilitation - Under the Microscope.


As part of our Justice Matters initiative we are challenging people to think about a criminal justice practice, policy or institution to abolish or abstain from. It can be conventional or unconventional – the choice is yours. To find out more and take part click here