For Far Too Many, Prison Doesn’t Work – Let’s Invest in the Alternatives

Ending short sentences and investing in problem-solving courts, effective probation and Women’s Centres is the key to safer communities.

Recently, I exposed figures showing the number of homeless women going to prison had rocketed in the past four years. What is especially depressing is that the data reveals that almost half of all women now sent to prison are victims of homelessness. Could there possibly be a more damning indictment of just how broken our justice system is?

Prison is all too often the very worst place for people who desperately need help in tackling underlying problems of homelessness, poverty, mental ill-health and substance addiction that led to them being jailed in the first place. But it is too often where such people end up.

For some offenders–including those who have committed rape, murder and other violent or sexual offences–prison will always be necessary. But we should all be concerned if marginalised and vulnerable people are being sent to prison for non-violent crimes on counterproductive short sentences. Victims of a broken society ending up in a broken prison system is a certain recipe for failure.

Last year I visited Scotland to look at important criminal justice reforms. During the visit I met those who have successfully led a public health approach to tackling knife crime, discussed with prison leaders the concerning level of private sector involvement in prisons in England and Wales but not affecting Scotland, and heard from experts on the need for more early interventions that make it much less likely someone will go to prison later in life.

But a key aim of the visit was to learn about legislation that limits the use of short sentences and promotes effective “community payback” alternatives to prison. Like England and Wales, Scotland has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Europe. But in 2011, Scotland introduced a presumption against sentences of less than three months, which after a number of years of bedding-in was recently extended. A court can now only hand down a short prison sentence if no other appropriate alternative is available and has to explain the reasons for doing so.

As a result of that visit, I made ending such sentences one of the pillars of Labour’s Five Point Plan launched during last year’s party conference to tackle the prisons crisis. And I launched a Labour Party consultation on “Building an Effective Criminal Justice System,” exploring a wide range of reforms from tackling the underlying biases within the criminal justice system that affect black communities to how public services can work more smartly together to identify those at risk of offending.

That review has just concluded with the recommendation that we adopt a Scottish-style presumption against short sentences and boost alternatives to custody. The need for such change is clear. One in three people given a custodial sentence are sentenced to less than three months, with half getting less than six months. For women it is even worse–half receive a three month sentence or less, and an eye-watering two-thirds get six months or less.

As an offender is normally released automatically halfway through their prison sentence, half of the people sent to prison are spending just a matter of weeks there. A person with a job, home and family before they go into custody on a short sentence is much less likely to have them all on release. Unsurprisingly, reoffending among such short-sentenced prisoners is very high, creating further victims of crime. The costs of reoffending is estimated at £15bn per year.

We need an end to that revolving door where prisoners are in and out of prison after receiving short sentences that simply don’t–and can’t–work. But encouraging noises from Justice Ministers sadly haven’t led to any concrete action. That’s a real disappointment as the votes were there for it in Parliament with Labour’s backing.

With plans for a presumption against sentences of less than six months (except in some circumstances) seemingly scrapped, it now looks likely that it will be left to a Labour Government to introduce a green paper on legislation for a presumption against short sentences. That is something we intend to do.

Of course, violent and sexual offences need to be exempted. But it is important to note, for example, the vast majority of women sentenced to prison have committed a non-violent offence. This includes thousands of women imprisoned each year for shoplifting.

Labour’s justice review also heard from dozens of experts on the community alternatives that should replace short sentences. Labour is committed to alternatives that will not only better help offenders turn their lives around but increase community and magistrates’ confidence. The Ministry of Justice’s own research shows that community sentences are better at reducing reoffending. Yet over the last decade there has been a staggering decline in the number of community sentences.

In part that is due to the breakdown in trust magistrates have in such alternatives following Chris Grayling’s disastrous probation privatisation. I have made fighting the government’s botched probation privatisation a centrepiece of my work as Justice Secretary because it is a cornerstone of sorting out so many other problems. As a result of our campaigning, alongside devastating reports from experts and financial risks to the model, the Tories have been forced–kicking and screaming–to scrap their own privatisation.

That broken model now needs to be replaced with a real alternative, where making profits for corporate giants doesn’t drive decision-making. Labour asked Lord Ramsbotham to outline a blueprint for a publicly-owned, locally-focussed, probation system and the next Tory Justice Secretary needs to use his excellent report as a guiding star.

A future Labour Government will also boost problem-solving courts as an alternative to custody. The Tories scrapped plans to investigate a wider roll-out in 2016. These courts empower judges to impose non-custodial sentences with strict rehabilitative conditions to keep people out of prison and focus on the root causes of offending. As the Centre for Justice Innovation has argued this can effectively reduce reoffending amongst those with chaotic lives and multiple needs, such as substance abusers, who would otherwise be on ineffective short prison sentences.

Instead of needlessly jailing vulnerable women–many of whom have often been the victims of more serious crimes than those they have committed–the next Labour Government will demonstrate a genuine commitment to Women’s Centres. As the excellent Corsten Report into female offenders made clear a decade ago, these can provide targeted and holistic support to women who are offenders or at risk of offending.

Prison is incredibly expensive and short sentences place a disproportionate strain on an already overstretched prison system. Moving away from a reliance on them can provide funds to properly support successful community alternatives. While there are no silver bullets, surely we should be investing justice resources in measures that actually help turn people’s lives around and keep our communities safe–rather than wasteful short prison sentences?