Sentences of six months or less should be abolished, says justice secretary

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Sentences of six months or less should be abolished, says justice secretary

Old Bailey: the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales

Prison sentences under six months are likely to be abolished, the justice secretary David Gauke announced yesterday in a speech setting out his vision for a ‘smart’ justice system where incarceration was no longer the default option.

In an attempt to dispel popular myths about the justice system somehow getting more lenient over time, Gauke used his speech to point out that England and Wales has the highest rate of imprisonment anywhere in western Europe.

Rather than an endemic slackening, sentences have been getting longer, he explained: ‘We are now taking a more punitive approach than at any point during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. We should be extremely cautious about continuing to increase sentences as a routine response to concerns over crime.’

Introducing the concept of ‘smart’ justice – apparently, a third way between the old binary of ‘soft’ and ;hard’ justice – Gauke explained that justice reform should be orientated around three core issues: whether higher sentences actually operate to increase crime, whether the justice system exacerbates recidivism, and whether we should be seeking newer ways of rehabilitating offenders.

The main target of Gauke’s speech was the short-term prison sentence and its impact on later offending. Although in the last five years over 300,000 offenders were handed down sentences for 12 months or less, two thirds of these went on to reoffend within a year of being released. Such figures are responsible for what turning prisons into what commentators have termed ‘universities of crime‘.

‘Why would we spend taxpayers’ money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, makes is less safe?’ Gauke said. Instead, he proposed a renewed emphasis on a ‘robust community order regime’, citing home curfew, driving bans, alcohol bans and foreign travel bans as potentially playing a bigger role in future.

A further focus was the impact of the short custodial sentence on women, 60% of whom report experience of domestic abuse or mental health issues. Given that such offenders may be unlikely to have a stable home life to return to after incarceration, Gauke emphasised the incongruity of placing such women in prison who, when released, may have even less to lose.

Rough-sleepers and homelessness were also referenced as both cause and consequence of the current pattern vicious cycle of offending.

‘As part of the Government’s Rough Sleeping agenda, we are investing up to £6.4 million in a pilot scheme to help individuals ‘released from three prisons – Bristol, Leeds and Pentonville – who have been identified as being at risk of homelessness into settled accommodation, while providing them with wrap around support for up to two years.’

The speech comes, however, at a time when fellow Conservative MPs have openly declared their support for increasing the incarceration rate for certain kinds of offending. In January, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced the introduction of knife crime prevention orders, which carry a jail sentence of up to two years if breached. For such orders to be imposed, a court only need be convinced on the ‘balance of probabilities’ that an individual routinely carries a knife, rather than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. Commenting on the policy, Sarah Jones MP, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on knife crime, said:

‘Imprisoning a young person – as young as 12 years old – for two years for breaching this order is completely disproportionate. It risks criminalising a generation of young people who have grown up unsupported and who often turn to carrying weapons out of fear.’

Against this context, David Gauke’s attempt to ‘redefine punishment’ potentially marks a signifiant break with the ‘prison works’ approach of previous Conservative governments. ‘I think now is the time for us as a society, as a country, to start a fresh conversation, a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times.’