Ministry of Justice policy must be effective – not just tough

Sophie Willett, of The Howard League for Penal Reform, looks at new government statistics the effectiveness of prison sentences.

By Sophie Willett of The Howard League for Penal Reform

New Ministry of Justice statistics demonstrate something The Howard League for Penal Reform has known for decades: that short term prison sentences are not able to address offending behaviour or reduce crime.

In a comparison exercise with matched pairs of offenders, the Ministry of Justice found that 45.1% of those jailed for under a year reoffend within 12 months, compared with only 40.7% of people jailed for between one year and two.

The comparison between those jailed for one year and two years, and those jailed for two years or more, also showed drops in reoffending.

Neither of those figures above are particularly impressive, but it does warrant the question: what is the alternative?

The answer is to lock more people up for longer says the Express. So let’s put this policy into the real world. The Bristol man sent to prison this week for two weeks for shoplifting, will instead go to prison for a minimum of two years. He is a 26-year-old alcoholic, who stole a bottle of cheap booze to feed his addiction. 

Under the Express’s prison policy, taxpayers will pay out something like £90,000 for one person for the theft of a £4.69 bottle of wine. Now let’s consider that each year we have in excess of 66,000 people entering prison on a short term prison sentence. Not to mention the cost of building all the extra prisons when our prison population doubles within a year.

I hope the Express readers won’t mind having a prison in their neighbourhood

Long term prison sentences, meanwhile, can be effective in reducing crime. Why is that? It is partly because those who commit more serious offences are simply a completely different group of people from those in the ‘revolving door’ of short prison sentences and troubled spells in the community. It is also true that more can be done with long sentenced prisoners, in terms of positive activities that can prove life changing, but these are all positive activities that could equally and more effectively be done in the community for those currently on short prison sentences.

Not much life changing can happen on a two-week prison sentence, apart from maybe losing your home, job and having your children taken into care.

Unsurprisingly then, the statistics also confirm that both community orders and suspended sentence orders are more effective in reducing reoffending than a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, with drops of more than eight per cent.

Not only are community sentences more effective, they also save money. Lower reoffending leads to lower costs for victims and criminal justice agencies further down the line. Most community orders enforcing unpaid work or directly tackling problems such as accommodation or alcohol cost £2-3,000 a year. Even intensive drug treatment orders in the community only cost an average of £8,000 a year. There are brilliant community programmes across the country that produce a nine per cent reoffending rate.

Short term prison sentences do not reduce crime. Instead of locking up the addicted and mentally ill for longer and longer to satisfy cheap headlines, let’s have an effective policy.

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