The great fallacy of mandatory sentencing laws

The great fallacy of mandatory sentencing laws

HMP/YOI Portland. Pic by Andrew Aitchison (©prisonimage)

The great fallacy of mandatory sentencing laws is the thought that being tough on crime will deter people from committing crimes in the first place.

This is an attractive prospect, as legal professionals and policymakers we strive to see less people incarcerated and going through the criminal legal system. Yet as Ed Davey MP, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman pointed out recently in an article, they simply do not work.

If we take knife crime as a prime example, since the mandatory sentencing was brought in by Labour and Conservative MPs, Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, knife crime has risen by 43%. It would be disingenuous to argue that the new law caused more knife crime, but I think it is perfectly fair to argue that it did precisely nothing to reverse or even stem the rise of knife crime.

Since this legislation was brought in, over 6,700 people have received sentences averaging at 7.5 months. Considering that data from the Prison Reform Trust suggests that prison sentences under 12 months do not have a significant rehabilitative effect, one must wonder what the point of the mandatory sentencing law is.

Now, the government has extended the mandatory sentencing laws to include acid despite the evidence showing that it does not work.

A key principle of liberalism is that justice should be part of the rehabilitative process. This requires a judge to have the flexibility to administer sentencing in a way that allows those at the receiving end to have a chance at reform. Mandatory sentencing undermines that principle.

From my time working with child law, I know it is crucial that the family courts get it right for the best interests of the child. If we do not allow the judiciary to have the flexibility to administer appropriate justice, then we are letting down the very people the justice system in England and Wales seeks to protect.

In family court the presence of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), allows the vulnerable to have some sort of protection for their interests. In the criminal courts, knife crime and now acid related offences carry mandatory sentencing. The hands of the judiciary are tied by these arcane laws and the for the overwhelmingly young perpetrators of these crimes, a custodial sentence only exacerbates the problems that cause them to commit these offences.

Considering that the mandatory sentencing laws have already cost our justice system £150 million in prison costs alone, we must put ideology aside and invest that money into community policing to reduce the number of people entering the prison system or we should put it into legal aid.

Alternatively, that money could have been spent introducing a Criminal Court Social Service that ensures that the judiciary takes representations from professional social services as to the need to place overwhelmingly vulnerable people in prison.

If we invested in ensuring the justice system and these people have the support they need, then we could cut the cost of reoffending and invest the money into ensuring that the courts are not under pressure to deliver results over justice.