Six-month prison sentences should go, says Gauke

18 Feb 19

Prison sentences of six months or less should be abolished in favour of community orders, the justice secretary David Gauke has said.   

Resources should be shifted from “ineffective” short-term prison sentences to community probation orders, Gauke told a Reform think-tank event today.

This would stop reoffending and reduce pressure on the overburdened criminal justice system, Gauke said, signalling a change in the government’s direction on justice.  

“I think now is the time for us as a society, to start a fresh conversation, a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times,” the secretary told the event.

He noted that the high rate of reoffending for those on sentences of less than six months showed that for them “prison simply isn’t working”.

“There’s a very strong case to abolish sentences for six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, and put in their place, a robust community order regime.”

Gauke said he will give more details later this year on changes he wants to make to the probation serve to shift from prison to community sentences.

“If we want to successfully make a shift from prison to community sentences it is critical that we have a probation system that commands the confidence of the courts and the public”.

He added: “In thinking strategically about the future of our justice system I believe in the end there is a strong case for switching resource away from ineffective prison sentences and into probation.

“This is more likely to reduce reoffending and, ultimately, reduce pressures on our criminal justice system.”

Gauke noted that the prison population has doubled to 83,000 since the early 1990s and in general prison sentences are getting longer.

He said: “We are now taking a more punitive approach than at any point during Thatcher’s time. Prison sentences in general are getting longer.”

Gauke clarified that he does not want community orders to be a “soft option”.

“It’s not a choice between hard and soft justice, it is a choice between effective and ineffective justice,” he said.

Reform’s Aidan Shilson-Thomas recently wrote for PF arguing the case for using community sentences more widely.

Prisons are one of the public services that have been most severely affected as a result of austerity measures with funding cuts leading to increased prison violence.

The number of attacks on staff almost tripled to 9,000 between 2009-10 and 2017-18, according to CIPFA and Institute for Government analysis.

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