Thoughts from the reforming short prison sentencing postbag

Helen Mills
Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Thanks to all those who have taken the time to respond to our video on reforming short sentences.

We asked for feedback and we got it. It’s been really informative to our plans taking this work forward over the coming months. Some of the feedback we’ve received and conversations we’ve been having are shared below. Meanwhile, if you haven’t watched it yet, you can do so now. Do email me your thoughts.


There’s a long history of good intentions…

… that have failed to translate into a significantly different use of short prison sentences. Many were frustrated about this paradox between short prison sentences being a seemingly consistent target for reform: “I have never heard anyone speak about short sentences in a positive way” said one respondent, and yet so little meaningful change in practice.

Given this, it may come as no surprise that there were several cautionary tales about reforming short prison sentencing:

We all have had so much optimism for the options you reflect on but experience tells us that we can easily fall into the trap of unintended consequences and that sentencing options must and should be more nuanced.

The failures of various tough community sentences as an alternative to high imprisonment were particularly mentioned in this regard. In terms of current government proposals, being "very sceptical of the lengthy and extended curfews" respondents expressed similar sentiments.

Another advised against assuming there already exists a meaningful consensus on reforming short prison sentences. Yes, many problematise short prison sentences but they do so for a wide range of reasons. Any sentencing reform options proposed will need to help clarify and build consensus about the target, not just be a technical exercise.

In terms of priorities for reform, the arrangements for responding to persistent low-level law breaking were frequently mentioned:

The greatest frustration I’ve witnessed in magistrates is seeing the same person coming before them time and again and not being certain if it’s the community support that’s failing or the individual.

Persistent low-level offences are a real problem, given the entrenched assumption that in the end, when everything else has ‘failed’, prison must be the ‘last resort’.

Sentencers(and politicians) need to be persuaded to recognise that there are limits to what the criminal justice system should be expected to do, and that sometimes all that courts can properly do is go through the ritual of imposing yet another non-custodial sentence.

One idea I really favour in terms of sentencing reform is repeated but less serious offences no longer accruing increasing sentences.

Other research participants commented on how short-term prison sentences obviously didn’t work for them and that it was curious that this was the sentence that was imposed again and again at huge cost and without result. People also described how they were sentenced to prison ‘for help’ but not getting it. This leads to three possible proposals specific to this group.

  • Pre-sentence reports if there is a longer gap in offending.
  • A cap on the number of short-term prison sentences that can be imposed in a row.
  • The extension of the possibility of judicial review to prison sentences.

Other proposals included looking at the contradictions between "custody as a last resort" in theory and practice and exploring the "lack of agreement about the purpose of prison (and short prison sentences in particular)".

The inhospitable climate for reforms aimed at reducing the size and scope of imprisonment concerned many. Given the current government agenda, all signs are pointing in the opposite direction& of longer sentences and a relaxed attitude to a rising prison population and its consequences.

Some were also wary about any reform which may put further strain on probation following its long-term mismanagement under "the disastrous transforming rehabilitation agenda" the current reorganisation ("there is an era of uncertainty with the (upcoming) probation reforms and we don’t know yet how these will play out") and the vital matter of additional investment seeming an unlikely imminent prospect.

Probation was not the only area of justice one remarked was overstretched:

Regarding the sentencing white paper, I have counted eight manifesto points, nineteen items requiring legislation, eight pilots, 48 plans/pledges and the requirement of more than £900 million. That seems far too much for the Ministry of Justice to handle, so I look forward to their announcing their implementation plans!

I'll leave the last line to one version of the most common email sign off on this subject:

‘We can’t give up that there might be a better system out there!’