Prison sentences under six months to be abolished

25/06/2019
Author: Andrew Costello

Justice Secretary, David Gauke has announced plans to scrap jail terms lasting less than six months in England and Wales.

The move, however, which excludes some exceptions for violent and sexual offences, is dependent on there being robust community frameworks in place to protect the public and reduce the numbers of those reoffending.

He claims that there is credible evidence to suggest that short sentences don’t work in rehabilitating offenders and that community sentences can be effective in reducing reoffending. According to the Ministry of Justice, research shows that two thirds of those sentenced to six months or less behind bars are “statistically more likely” to re-offend than those given community sentences.

Under the MoJ’s proposal, up to 30,000 offenders, including burglars and the majority of shoplifters, would avoid jail. To combat this, Mr Gauke has highlighted greater use of custodial alternatives, such as curfews, GPS tags and exclusion orders to prevent reoffending.

The Magistrates’ Association, opponents of the plans, have accused Mr Gauke of going too far, opting instead for the abolition of sentences of eight weeks and under. Its chair, John Bache JP, voiced concerns that there aren’t sufficient alternatives in all areas of England and Wales. If there were, he stated, the association would support the government’s reforms.

Mr Gauke has acknowledged that both the public and the judiciary have to be confident that there are effective community orders in place: “If we are going to make these reforms work, we need to make sure community sentences are working properly”. He’s also recognised that offenders behaviour, mental health, alcohol and drug misuse issues need to be met and dealt with for the benefit of the wider community.

Think tank, Civitashas also criticised the plans, stating that many of the 30,000 who avoid jail will be repeat offenders. According to the MOJ’s data, 16,000 would have been convicted of theft or burglary, 3,100 for public order, 1,625 for possession of weapons and 1,121 for drug offences. Mr Peter Cuthbertson, author of the Civitas analysis, said: “While the Government implies that its policy will be tough on those committing violent and sex offences, in fact it is overwhelmingly the same criminals committing all types of offence.”

Speaking of the reforms, Andrew Costello, a partner in Russell & Russell’s criminal defence department, said: “This is yet again another example of intervention in the justice system being presented as necessary. The reality is that continual funding cuts across the system are the true problem. The National Probation Service has been decimated by governmental interventions, which are now set to be reversed. The government is not listening to the people working within the system.  If they continue to tinker from a distance then they will end up causing irreparable damage”.

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