THE phrase “here today, gone tomorrow politician” tends to drive ministers up the wall.
But when it comes to Justice Secretaries, who are charged with responsibility for this country’s 83,000 prison inmates, it’s spot on. We’re now on to our sixth minister since 2010. With that in mind perhaps, Justice Secretary David Gauke proved this week that he is a man in a hurry.
Periscope Inmates at Birmimgham’s Winson Green prison posted shots of drug-taking in 2016
He announced a reform so audacious that it would have stunned many of his Tory predecessors. “Prison isn’t working” for those sentenced to less than six months, he said — suggesting such short sentences should be abolished altogether.
If all eyes in Westminster weren’t on the Brexit end game, this would have caused a much bigger backlash, especially on the Conservative backbenches. But the timing means this move — a genuinely bold one — has not received the attention it merits. Because, quite frankly, it is not a good idea at all.
But let’s start by being fair to Mr Gauke. There is some clear evidence that short sentences do not achieve all that much in the long term. Reoffending rates after them are very high — nearly two thirds of people who are locked up for less than 12 months end up being reconvicted within a year of their release.
No wonder you hear prison officers referring, through gritted teeth, to some inmates as “frequent flyers”. Joking aside, it is a shocking failure. The whole point of prisons is that they exist to keep the public safe.
You take away someone’s freedom and they are no longer around to cause you grief. Knowing that gives enormous peace of mind to crime victims, many of whom will doubtless feel that scrapping sentences of any length would be a slap in the face to them. But prisons are also supposed to turn offenders into law-abiding citizens.
The state of the prison system itself should not be overlooked either. Many of our jails are in complete chaos — and are nothing short of academies of crime. Will Heaven
Far too often, as soon as an offender is released, they are back on the streets, making the lives of their neighbours a misery — blighting communities with drug-dealing, theft and gang violence. This is partly why magistrates use prison sentences for repeat offenders who will not comply with other efforts.
Behind closed doors, they admit it is to give everyone else a break. What Conservatives of all stripes should remember is that it is the poorest in society — those without high hedges and sophisticated burglar alarms — who are the most frequent victims of crime.
Let the wrong people out of prison, or fail to supervise them properly, and you are ruining more lives. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is troubling about this idea, bright though it may seem at first.
Short sentences may not work as well as they could, but is what the Government proposes actually any better? Apparently, it will involve a “robust community orders regime” — in other words, punishment outside the prison walls.
A quick glance at the local Press this week in the West Country gives an idea of the risks this might involve. A badly-run private company which looks after probation services in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall has collapsed into administration.
SWNS:South West News Service Prisoners also posted pictures of themselves rioting
It followed a report by Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, which noted that “the professional ethos of probation has buckled under the strain of the commercial pressures put upon it.”
This is what we are talking about in reality. Ministers undoubtedly have the best of intentions, and they may even be able to conjure up new hi-tech solutions involving electronic tagging and GPS. But fundamentally you are talking about a system that is already under severe strain. It could struggle to cope with the ending of short prison sentences.
The state of the prison system itself should not be overlooked either. Many of our jails are in complete chaos — and are nothing short of academies of crime. Too often we see stories of inmates high on the synthetic drug spice, running amok with apparently no meaningful supervision whatsoever.
If you want to turn a prisoner’s life around, you need to educate them, train them up and get them off drugs. But as an inspection of Durham Prison found this month, 30 per cent of prisoners had acquired a drug habit since coming into the facility.
More broadly, the Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke noted in his annual report last year that his inspectors had “documented some of the most disturbing prison conditions we have ever seen — conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st Century.” This is hardly surprising, given so many of our jails were built in the 19th Century.
As a Policy Exchange report found, “the key determinant of the decency, safety and effectiveness of a prison is not its size, but its age.” Investing in bigger, newer prisons appears to be the answer.
Another area that the Government should consider investing in is the courts system. In places such as New York, US judges run problem-solving courts where offenders are closely supervised and guided through drug rehabilitation.
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When they slip up, they are put away for very short but immediate sentences of up to 48 hours. It’s the “tough love” approach that was for a time favoured by Michael Gove as Justice Secretary. Why? Because the evidence shows that it works — problem-solving courts are particularly effective with those who are most likely to reoffend.
Ultimately, that is what matters most — that the Government follows the evidence. There is not yet enough proof that ditching short sentences would be a smart move.
PA:Press Association If you want to turn a prisoner’s life around, you need to educate them, train them up and get them off drugs
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