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Short Custodial Sentences

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. (323384)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. (323393)

Overall, the reoffending rate for all adult offenders went down by 15.9 per cent. between 2000 and 2008, and by a greater margin in respect of juvenile offenders. However, there is a problem, which I readily acknowledge, in respect of short-sentence prisoners, among whom the reoffending rate increased in the same period by 3.9 per cent. Those persistent offenders tend to be the most intractable to deal with, having failed on community punishments and failed to deal with their alcohol and drug abuse. The courts, police and National Offender Management Service are putting great effort into directing more of these offenders from crime, including through intensive alternatives to custody, “through the gate” supervision and better management of offenders, which is being piloted in the integrated offender management projects. Those measures are all helping to shape an improved strategy for short-sentence prisoners. In addition, last week I announced a very important initiative with the organisation Social Finance in respect of Peterborough prison, where social investors are to be paid by results to get reoffending down.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree that the ineffectiveness of short custodial sentences, which we both agree about, is not remedied by saying, “Let’s not send people to prison at all”? It would be remedied far better by looking at the reoffending rate for those with long sentences, which is much lower, and by ensuring that people are kept in prison long enough to address their problems with alcoholism, drugs and lack of education.

The Government are the last people to suggest that people should not be sent to prison when the courts require it. One of the main drivers of the 25,000 increase in the prison population since 1997 has been that the courts, quite correctly, have been sending more people to prison and for longer. As for getting the prison population down, the hon. Gentleman should direct his remarks to those on his own Front Bench. It was, after all, the shadow Justice Secretary who said that if he could get back to the prison numbers that existed in 1993—44,000 rather than 84,000—he would have succeeded, and that he would be very happy to have that engraved on his tombstone. I think that it would be rather more of a political tombstone were he to try that. The people in prison need to be there, and what we must do is make more effective use of short sentences.

Many of those given short custodial sentences often have drug addiction issues. Would it not help to reduce reoffending if non-statutory organisations, charities and non-state players were given a greater role in helping to tackle drug addiction, both inside prison and when prisoners come out?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As has been brought out by the excellent Public Accounts Committee report that came out recently, most of those persistent offenders have drug and alcohol abuse problems. We have increased by 15 times the amount of money spent on drug abuse and better education about drugs in prison, and as the hon. Gentleman might know, we are making much more use of voluntary organisations. Obviously, they have to enter into proper contracts with the state.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Government are pursuing intensive alternatives to custody. Will he tell the House what effect that approach is having in reducing reoffending?

The emerging evidence from the evaluations in the six areas where intensive alternatives to custody are being piloted suggests that they are significantly reducing reoffending. I have seen one of them in operation in Derby. There is no doubt that if they are properly planned and executed they can effectively force offenders to face up to the reasons why they are offending, and can establish strong discipline on them in the community. If that works, it is all to the good.

The Justice Secretary failed to point out that the goal to which I aspire on prison numbers is matched by the goal of reducing crime.

Statistics published last week show that the reoffending rate among those subject to drug rehabilitation requirements is even higher than that among those who serve short prison sentences—although those two groups are often the same people. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining offenders on methadone is a counsel of failure, and will he give courts the power to impose abstinence-based drug rehabilitation orders to help offenders—with short sentences and long—to give up drugs once and for all?

The hon. and learned Gentleman highlights the fact that the group consisting of short-sentence prisoners is the most intractable to deal with. That is accepted in the round, and a great deal of work is going on to get them away from crime. Some of the “through the gates” work being done in London with the St. Giles Trust and the Metropolitan police has been excellent. Key challenges include ensuring that people are not offending—not when they are in prison, where, on the whole they cannot, but from the moment they leave prison—and dealing with their incredibly chaotic lives. He is really talking about the same thing. The prescription of methadone has to be a medical matter. Simply taking people off any kind of drug on which they are dependent when they are not ready for that will not resolve anything. However, we do have drug abstinence programmes in place.

But is it not small wonder that prisoners coming off short sentences are more likely than not to reoffend, given that, despite the “through the gates” programmes, the delays in assessing prisoners mean that most do not even undertake rehabilitation work until halfway through their sentence—and there is then wasteful duplication of assessments—and also given that up to half of prisoners spend almost all day in their cells?

The hon. and learned Gentleman draws attention to the findings of a National Audit Office report to which I have already referred, which shows that there are some excellent practices and some less than excellent practices in prisons. We are committed to responding very quickly to such issues—a response that includes improving the time that it takes to assess prisoners, as he suggests.