Banning Short Jail Terms: Why Is It Controversial?

Jail sentences less than 6 months could be banned in England and Wales, under a proposed Ministry of Justice scheme. Short-term sentences have been criticised for years by government officials and NGOs alike for their inability to reform offenders. Now the current Prison Minister, Rory Stewart, has sided with these criticisms while speaking to The Telegraph, stating that short-term sentences are ‘long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you.’ He argues that offenders arrested for minor offences interact with more serious offenders in prison environments, which actually serves to make them more dangerous.

Almost two-thirds of prisoners released after sentences of less than 12 months reoffend within a year, demonstrating that current reform efforts are simply not working. Additionally, prisons are critically overcrowded, with the prison population doubling between the early 1990s and 2018. Overcrowding results a higher rate of harm and death in prisons due to a lack of mental and physical health resources, as well as a rise in physical assaults. If the plan were to come into action, an estimated 30,000 minor offenders would be affected each year, as well as an immediate reduction in prison populations by 3,500. Exceptions to this ban would be made for violent crime or sexual offence, meaning that the majority of offenders affected would be shop-lifters and burglars.

Alternative punishments are not yet detailed but could include community service or fines, coupled with addiction recovery and mental health support when needed. This combination is hailed by the Prison Reform Trust to be more effective than a jail sentence, as it aims to tackle the root of the problem and the motivations of the offender. Furthermore, in a 2011 review, prisoners reported finding community service ‘more of a punishment’ than jail time, which to some offers a higher quality of life than outside.

In fact, this is a practise that already occurs in Scotland with jail terms of under three months, with a proposed extension to 12 months possible in the near future. This has had huge financial benefits for the Scottish prison system: holding a prisoner for a year costs an estimated £30,000-40,000 a year, while a community payback sentence costs less than £10,000.

It’s true that not everyone is in favour of this approach. In Scotland, the short-term ban has been criticised by Scottish Conservative Justice Spokesman Liam Kerr who stated ‘short-term prison sentences can play an important role in our justice system, and it would be ludicrous to end them.’ Furthermore, some community leaders within England have expressed fear that it will threaten the safety of communities as offenders are able to walk free. However, it is this danger that has produced the exceptions for violent or sexual offenders, who will still be given jail terms. Additionally, registered offenders are supervised heavily while in the community through methods such as curfews and GPS monitors.

Ultimately, this is a decision that shouldn’t be as controversial as it is. It is both a currently held practice in Scotland and one that has been proven effective by multiple independent sources. Admittedly, the initial exposure to the idea can be surprising, because it challenges our conceptions of ‘punishment.’ However, when it is examined in any depth it quickly becomes apparent that it is not only practical for the institutions, but of greater benefit for the individuals and communities involved. We can only hope that what is currently a proposal soon becomes a reality.

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