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by Richard Ford
Published by: The Times
Date: June 21, 2010
Prison sentences of less than a year should be scrapped to ease overcrowding in jails and cut the £2.4 billion annual bill, it is proposed today.
Probation officers and prison governors say low-level crimes should result in community punishments. The proposal comes as the Ministry of Justice looks at ways of making drastic savings, including the £4 billion a year spent on prisons and probation. Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has already questioned whether short-term prison sentences provide value for money because they are failing to reform criminals.
It costs more to keep a prisoner in a local jail, where most prisoners serving less than 12 months are held, than annual boarding school fees at Eton.
A place at Liverpool or Birmingham costs an average £34,000 a year, without health and education costs — Eton charges £30,000.
Latest figures show that 55,000 people received jail terms of six months or less in 2008 and that they served an average of six to eight weeks. Those sentenced to six months would commonly be freed after six weeks because of automatic release at the halfway stage and early release entitlements.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: “Currently 55,000 people a year receive custodial sentences of six months or less, where no rehabilitation is possible and there are extremely high reoffending rates.
“This costs the taxpayer at least £350 million a year. The majority of these individuals could be supervised in the community on intensive programmes costing between £50 million and £60 million a year.”
A briefing paper from the association highlighted 170 cases this year where courts imposed prison sentences of less than a year, despite probation staff recommending non-custodial options.
In most cases the community punishment would have involved supervision by the Probation Service and attendance on courses to tackle alcohol and drug abuse. The paper said that in 104 of the 170 cases, the offender received a prison sentence of less than six months and that 69 had fewer than two previous convictions. In 43 cases the Probation Service had recommended the offender do unpaid community-based work, such as clearing rubbish, removing graffiti or painting youth clubs.
Mr Fletcher said reducing short-term jail sentences would save money, reduce prison overcrowding and improve the chances of rehabilitating criminals. About 60 per cent of prisoners given jail term of 12 months or less are reconvicted within a year of release, compared with 34 per cent of those given a community punishment with supervision.
The Ministry of Justice has started the biggest prison building programme in Western Europe, increasing capacity to 96,000 by 2014, including five 1,500-space jails costing £1.2 billion.
Eoin McLennan-Murray, general secretary of the Prison Governors’ Association, said: “When spending cuts across the criminal justice system are necessary, money should be targeted effectively. Providing funds to build additional prisons is not the way forward.”
Crispin Blunt, the Prisons Minister, told MPs that a review of sentencing policy was under way. He said: “We intend to bring forward proposals on sentencing and rehabilitation of offenders after the House returns in October.”
Phil Wheatley, the former head of the Prison Service, said on the eve of his retirement this month: “People who get short-term sentences — and many are doing relatively low-level crime like theft and shoplifting to fund a drug habit — often do not have much motivation to give it up. The real question is: are we making them better?”
This House Would Scrap Prison Sentences Of Less Than A Year