What now for short prison sentences?

Richard Garside
Friday, 24 July 2020

Some 60 per cent of those imprisoned each year in England and Wales serve sentences of under one year. 

Thousands go to prison each year for a mere few weeks.

Until last year's General Election, reform of so-called short prison sentences was very much on the cards. The then Justice Secretary, David Gauke, argued that they were wasteful, ineffective, and the cause of chaos in the prison estate.

Since the election, support for short prison sentence reform, at least in the government, has fallen away. Some thought that the current coronavirus crisis might focus ministerial minds on finding pragmatic measures that reduced unnecessary imprisonment disruption and churn. So far this has not been the case.

But how strong is the argument in favour of short prison sentence reform? We explored this question at a webinar earlier this week, chaired by my colleague Helen Mills. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.

The webinar forms part of our project on short prison sentence reform, supported by the Lloyds Bank Foundation, which runs into next year. You can find out more about the project here.

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Matt Ford suggested in this piece that the recent decline in the prison population in England and Wales was bottoming out. With courts reopening, he argued, the prison population could be set for growth again.

Our latest infographic, appears to bear this out.

It is a sobering thought, as one of the speakers at our short sentences webinar, Sarah Armstrong, pointed out, that coronavirus has delivered far greater reductions in the prison population than any reform effort of the past few decades has managed.

It would be tragic if this modest gain was now frittered away by the government.

As to the other measures alongside prison population reductions European states have taken to protect prison populations during the pandemic, we will be releasing a report next week tracking these efforts. In the meantime, you can read lead author, Matt Ford's observations on the report's findings here.