The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that it is considering putting a stop to prison sentences of less than six months in England and Wales.
Some Ministers have argued that short jail terms are ‘less effective’ at cutting reoffending than community-based penalties.
Prisons minister Rory Stewart told the Daily Telegraph that such sentences of 6 months and under were:
“long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you”.
If 6 months and under jail sentences are abolished then it is thought that more prison spaces could be freed up for more ‘serious’ offenders
Some 30,000 criminals, including burglars and most shoplifters, could be spared jail every year under the proposals, the Telegraph reports.
However, many people have said that burglars in particular should receive tougher sentences anyway, rather than ‘benefit’ from the potential abolishment of short-term sentences.
Offenders could face sanctions such as community sentences but no alternative penalties have been confirmed by Ministers who are in support of the potential abolishment.
The measure could reduce the prison population by about 3,200 inmates, although the proposal would require new legislation.
There has been no specific reference in relation to how this could affect sentences which have been given in relation to offences committed under the Assaults on Emergency Services (Workers) Act.
Arguing for the need for reform, Mr Stewart told the Daily Telegraph Magazine:
“You bring somebody in for three or four weeks, they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation.
“They come (into prison), they meet a lot of interesting characters (to put it politely) and then you whap them on to the streets again.
The prison population has doubled in England and Wales since the early 1990s, rising from about 40,000 to more than 80,000 in 2018, official figures show.
Mr Stewart said he realised that the proposals could provoke a backlash against “soft justice” by people in his own party and the public, but said it was “a debate I have to win”.
It remains to be seen how these proposals could affect crime rates as individuals who would have previously been put off from committing a crime through fear of a custodial sentence will see ‘community punishment’, where they get to go home each evening, as a much ‘softer’ form of punishment.
It also remains to be seen what would happen in relation to more offences potentially being committed by individuals whilst they are on ‘community’ based punishments rather than custodial ones.
The Prison Reform Trust, which has previously called for a presumption against short prison sentences, welcomed the new proposals.
Peter Dawson, the charity’s director, told the Telegraph:
“Ministers should be congratulated for having the political courage to start the debate.”
He also told BBC News that while the law required community penalties to contain an element of punishment, they can include other things as well such as community work, treatment for addiction and help for mental health conditions.
“As we have said previously, short sentences are too often ineffective, provide little opportunity to rehabilitate offenders and lead to unacceptably high rates of reoffending.
“That’s why we are exploring potential alternatives, but this work is ongoing and we have reached no conclusions at this time.”
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