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Short Prison Sentences

Volume 653: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness of short prison sentences.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on boxing and a steward of the British Boxing Board of Control.

I have called this debate because I was heartened by the Minister’s recent statement that he is seriously considering abolishing short-term prison sentences. Considering the many reports in the news about the apparent decline of prisons across the country— perhaps most notably HM Prison Bedford—this debate could not have come at a better time. It is my hope that the debate will serve as the beginning of a conversation with the Government, wider society, charities and other organisations that inspires confidence in our criminal justice system and brings about effective, fair punishment in the future.

According to Dr Robert Jones at the Wales Governance Centre, Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. As of last Friday, there were more than 82,400 people serving sentences in prisons across England and Wales, 95% of them male. The current prison capacity of England and Wales is estimated to be around 85,000, which means many prisons are suffering from severe overcrowding and a massive strain on resources. This overcrowding leads to increased risk of inmate violence, and leaves resources and staff thinly stretched across the prison, which can heavily impact on the success of rehabilitating inmates.

It is clear that things have to change. I believe that there are alternatives available to the Government. If we were to see more investment in community services and rehabilitative treatment programmes, which can address an offender’s criminogenic needs, we would see a reduction in the prison population and rates of reoffending. I am aware that the Minister expressed an interest in abolishing sentences of only three months, but I believe that there is a case to extend this to sentences of up to six months. All of the evidence stacks up to show that shorter sentences do not work.

The hon. Gentleman is making some good points about overcrowding and the state of the prison estate. When looking at short sentences, the key issue for me is whether they achieve the rehabilitation of prisoners; my judgment is that they do not. Would he agree?

The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point, which I will elaborate on later. There are numerous examples of people in the system with substance abuse issues, who cannot get into substance abuse rehabilitation or overcome their problem, who then find themselves outside, and get back into the system. I will develop this argument more as I go on and I will be happy to take another intervention, if the hon. Gentleman so wishes.

To me, short sentences do not help to reduce reoffending and they can cause unnecessary disruption to the lives of those who could have been dealt with in ways that have seen better results.

My hon. Friend talks about the impact on people’s lives. A recent report published by the Prison Reform Trust showed that 17,000 children in England and Wales are affected by maternal imprisonment each year. One in four women are sentenced to less than one month. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely unsustainable for women and their children?

In the case of non-violent crimes, especially those committed by women, there is a real argument to make about that. I cannot quote the figures off the top of my head, but I understand that a large number of women who are locked up have been victims of domestic violence. The courts need to accept that and think about it when they are sentencing women in the future. As I said, 95% of the prison population is male. How many of the 5% who are women have been convicted of non-violent crimes and sentenced to less than one month? Many women are in nurturing and caring roles, with children and also with elderly parents, and that would cause severe disruption as well.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is critical to develop a robust and credible system of community sentences, so that my constituents can feel satisfied that when people are punished by the court they truly receive something that is inconvenient, rehabilitative and credible?

The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. This is all about building confidence in community rehabilitation sentencing. Somebody said to me earlier in the week that if somebody’s house gets burgled, they want to feel that people have been punished. However, community sentencing is seen as the soft option. As this debate goes on over the next few months, we have to be talking about building confidence in those sentences—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

The Revolving Doors Agency’s campaign, which is called #shortsighted, backs the sentiment that ending short sentences can reduce cost and be resource effective. It is calling on the Government to bring an end to short sentences and opt for community-based sentences instead.

In England and Wales we are too quick to send people to prison for petty and often persistent crimes. I understand that Governments of all shades are often influenced by the media, which likes the idea of “lock them up”. The fact that many people who have received a short sentence often reoffend and commit similar crimes shows that short-term sentences are ineffective in reducing recidivism. Government statistics from 2018 show that 63% of those who had sentences of less than 12 months went on to reoffend within a year. It is clear that short prison sentences do not provide an apt amount of time to stage an intervention and address the needs of an offender, particularly if that offender is also experiencing ongoing problems with drug and alcohol use or other mental health issues.

On the other side of the coin, those who have committed crimes of animal cruelty face a maximum of six months’ imprisonment in Wales. I understand that the Government in England have committed to increase that to five years, an extension which I believe should be applied to all parts of the UK. Six months hardly provides enough time for an intervention in such criminal behaviour, and animal cruelty should not be treated in the same manner as petty crimes. I support the continued campaign by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home to increase these sentences.

Last year, the Revolving Doors Agency carried out research among voters of all parties in England and Wales, bearing in mind what I said about the media and “lock them up”. It found that an overwhelming 80% believe that those convicted of petty crimes, such as theft of daily essentials, should not be sent to prison. They also found that voters strongly back reducing the prison population and investing money in activities such as drug treatment programmes instead, with 74% thinking that offenders who have committed a petty crime and who have drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes, instead of prison. What is more, the majority of voters said that they would be more likely to vote for an MP who supported reducing prison populations and investing the savings into treatment programmes, with only 16% saying that they would be unlikely to do so.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to slay the myth that this country is somehow soft on locking people up? Across the United Kingdom over 90,000 people are locked up, whereas in France the figure is closer to 60,000 people. It is important that we set the record straight, and do so loud and clear.

I absolutely agree. From the contributions that we have had so far, the tone of the debate makes me think that we are going to produce something that will inspire confidence. I welcome all the interventions we have had so far; it has been good. The hon. Gentleman is right. Coming from a small country like Wales, I find it amazing that we have the highest prison population in western Europe.

I have always been supportive of the UK’s prison system taking a rehabilitative approach with offenders, rather than a punitive one. Rehabilitation is proven in successfully reducing reoffending rates, far more than a punitive system does. All we need to do is to look to prison systems in countries such as Norway and Finland to see that rehabilitating and educating offenders massively reduces rates of crime, and to the US and Russia to see that punishment does not.

People being imprisoned in England and Wales are mostly being convicted of non-violent, petty crimes. Many of these offenders have other issues, such as alcohol, drugs or their mental health. Sending those people to prison for a few months will not help them, and nor will it help wider society. The Ministry of Justice has published research in the past which confirms the fact that offenders given short-term prison sentences were associated with significantly higher proven reoffending than those given a community order or suspended sentence.

To reduce reoffending by those with substance abuse or mental health issues, treatment programmes would be far more beneficial than imprisonment. For younger offenders engaging in petty crime, perhaps educational workshops would be better. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on boxing I have been researching and learning about the benefits of sport and boxing in reducing and deterring criminal behaviour and keeping young people on the straight and narrow. It is definitely an avenue that the Government should consider exploring. However, despite a review from Rosie Meek about the benefits of sports, boxing and martial arts in prisons, the Government have yet to act on the recommendations. I want to ask the Minister whether I and a delegation from the all-party group could come to discuss her report with him.

My hon. Friend is making a considered speech, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. We both represent working-class communities that believe in being tough on crime and its causes. Does he agree that the Government could do much more to support projects such as the Wildcard boxing academy in my community, which keeps young people in places such as St Helens out of the criminal justice system in the first place?

When it comes to boxing there is evidence. I could cite a huge number of champions, from both sides of the Atlantic—some famous examples—who found themselves in trouble and used boxing to turn themselves around, because of the discipline that the sport taught them. The Government need to take those ideas on board, and provide support for boxing clubs, which tend to be at the bottom of the pile when money is handed out in community grants.

Does the hon. Gentleman think there is a great contradiction in the health service engaging in social prescription, by encouraging people to engage in sports activities, while the Prison Service does not?

Yes. The trend in the past 20 years has been that prevention is better than cure. The NHS is getting success in encouraging people suffering from obesity to go on to fitness and diet programmes. There is some success from that approach, and it could be transferred to the Prison Service. If people with energy have time on their hands, sport can fill it.

In research published last year by the Ministry of Justice it was found that reductions in reoffending were associated with the use of court orders such as community sentences rather than short custodial sentences. The effect was greater for people with a larger number of prior offences, younger offenders, and people with severe mental health problems. For those with prior offences who have already served a number of short stints in prison, imprisonment is clearly not a deterrent but more of an occupational hazard. It is interesting, therefore, that those offenders are less likely to reoffend when given community sentences.

Community sentences can be a win-win for all. Taxpayers’ money is saved, local communities and projects benefit and offenders learn skills and the value of giving back to society instead of taking from it. Not only do short sentences do nothing to rehabilitate an offender or reduce their risk of reoffending; sending people to prison for a few months unnecessarily adds to the overcrowding in prisons throughout the country. As I mentioned, England and Wales are reaching peak prison capacity and many prisons are heavily overcrowded. The overcrowding means even more strain on already pressured prison staff and resources; there are not enough of them as it is. That in turn has an impact on the success of inmate rehabilitation, levels of violence in prisons and access to illegal drugs, not to mention the wellbeing of prison staff.

That overcrowding could be prevented if courts did not instantly resort to sentencing offenders to short prison terms for non-violent petty crimes. In the year ending June 2018 almost 29,000 people entered prison to serve sentences of six months or less. That was 47% of all sentenced offenders entering prison during that time. According to Ministry of Justice prison performance statistics for 2017-18, in England and Wales the cost of keeping one person in prison for a year stood at £37,543. That works out at about £3,125 per month for one prisoner. The annual figure is more than Brits earn on average each year, and is almost as much as the cost of a place at an elite public school. Think of the amount of money we could save and invest elsewhere, if we did not imprison people on short sentences. It would also save money in the long run, as those who serve a community sentence or enter a rehabilitation programme are less likely to reoffend and to be imprisoned again in the future.

The money saved could be invested into the programmes and used to create more jobs and train more staff in the skills required to work in rehabilitation and treatment services, as well as being spent on other public services. With the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit and a shrinking economy, we need to be more efficient and effective with money and resources, and invest in and utilise more efficient and effective options.

It is not just the placement in prison for a few months that is costly. Short-term sentences can be hugely disruptive to people’s lives and lead them to be more reliant on public and social services than they were before entering prison. Resettling a previously imprisoned offender back into the community uses up a lot of time, money and resources. Short sentences can disrupt employment and housing situations, which can lead to more people applying for and relying on universal credit. There is a risk of people being left homeless, particularly if they are released on a Friday, as happened to more than 25,000 people in 2017-18. The public services that people rely on upon release, such as access to benefits, medication, housing or other assistance, are closed over the weekend. That means there is a risk that they will not get their basic needs supplied and that they will sleep rough for at least three nights. Therefore they will be at increased risk of reoffending. From there the offender can fall into the cycle of offending and imprisonment, which racks up the costs in the long run.

I know that the Minister is committed to prison reform and reducing the levels of inmate violence and access to drugs, and that he recognises the virtue of rehabilitating and educating inmates. I commend him for that. I hope he would agree therefore that, if we truly want to protect the public and remove people from a life of crime, so that they become proactive citizens who make positive contributions to society, we must take heed of the research and the multitude of statistics showing that short prison sentences do not work. I mentioned earlier the Revolving Doors Agency’s #shortsighted campaign, and I urge the Minister to take on board its recommendations. It calls on the Government to introduce a presumption against short custodial sentences of less than six months, much as the Scottish Government have done. That would allow for such sentences to be given only when no other appropriate option was available. In cases where short prison sentences were imposed for non-violent petty crimes, the courts would have to give a reason why they had opted for a custodial sentence over a community one. What is more, that approach would not remove the court’s discretion, and would allow courts to deal with more serious and violent offences appropriately. What is proposed is a presumption, not a ban on short prison sentences.

The fact that an offender does not go to prison does not mean that they are escaping justice or retribution. Such offenders will serve their time in another way, whether through curfews and tags or community service that benefits the wider community. Many of them face pressing personal issues, including substance abuse, homelessness or mental illness. I believe that they should be given the opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of criminal behaviour. They should have help alongside serving their community sentence, so that they can be rehabilitated and learn skills that can benefit their local economy and wider society.

We have to ask: do we truly want our streets to be safe, or do we want offenders to be punished and thrown into an expensive cycle of petty criminal behaviour and short-term imprisonment? If the answer is the former, the only way forward is to focus on how we can help those people change their lives for the better, rather than throwing them in prison and forgetting about them for several months. By allowing the latter to happen we will only contribute to the rising level of crime on the streets, and to overstretched prison services. I hope that the Minister can agree with me on that, and that he will pursue alternatives to short-term prison sentences.

As I said at the beginning of the debate, I look forward to engaging in a constructive and robust conversation. I do not expect to get all the answers today. However, I want a real opportunity to engage, over the next few months, in bringing about a justice system that brings benefits and, above all, inspires the confidence of the whole community.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for his fantastic speech, which has really framed the problem we are dealing with today. I am happy to encourage interventions from any hon. Member; I am sorry to hear that we will not be hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who has an enormous amount to contribute to this debate.

He can always intervene on me. I will first touch briefly on the issue of public protection, secondly try to take a concrete example from Bedford Prison about how short-term prison sentences actually work in reality, thirdly touch on the alternatives to prison and, finally, talk about the prison regime.

I begin with public protection. It is not a subject that can be approached with anything other than the greatest, profoundest degree of seriousness. In the end, almost the most fundamental duty of our Government is to protect the public, and in particular to protect the public against crime. Whatever we are talking about today, all parties across the House begin with a fundamental understanding that crime is wrong and that it can inflict unspeakable misery on a victim. We have only to think of recent events—victims of knife crime, innocent people smashed up in the streets, victims of burglary, victims of sexual offences—to see why we must begin with absolute horror at and abhorrence of crime.

In addressing it, we must combine our desire to punish people, quite rightly, for committing crimes, our desire to deter more people from committing crimes in the future, our desire to rehabilitate people and change their behaviour, our desire to protect the public, and our desire to pass on a strong message that we will not tolerate this misery being inflicted on the public. When we talk about this, it is important to stress that nobody, on either side of the House, is in any way questioning the horror that crime imposes on victims.

However, it is also important to look at the reality of what is happening in our prisons. On Thursday last week, I was in Bedford Prison, talking to a man. I asked, “How long have you been in for?” He said, “Three weeks.” I asked if it was his first time in Bedford Prison and he said, “No, I was here eight times last year.” I said, “How could you possibly have been in Bedford Prison eight times last year?” He showed me his arm; he was not wearing his shirt and he had tracks from his heroin addiction right the way up his arm. He said, “What happens is, I’m a heroin addict. I leave Bedford Prison after a few weeks, I don’t really know what to do with myself, I shoplift and I get put back in Bedford Prison again.” The question is, what purpose is being served by moving this man in and out of Bedford Prison eight times in a year?

By all means, we can come back to that suggestion, but first I will go through some of the purposes that might be put forward. It was quite clear from my conversation with him that this was a man who had serious mental health issues, serious learning difficulties and a serious drug addiction. The first suggestion, made by the sotto voce intervention from my hon. Friend, is that perhaps the reason we have put him in prison is that when he is in prison he is not shoplifting. That is true, but we must remember that he is only in prison for three weeks. It is not a great protection of the public from his shoplifting if he is removed for three weeks and then popped back on to the streets again.

The second reason that people would suggest for his being put in prison is to deter him from committing an offence in the future. That is clearly not working: he leaves, he reoffends. The third reason he might be put in prison is to rehabilitate him—to change him so that he does not reoffend. That is clearly not working, because he is obviously reoffending. The final view that is sometimes put forward by judges or magistrates is that there is no alternative; they have tried everything else with this person, so what else can they do other than put him in prison? But it is not working. The idea that there is no alternative to putting this person in and bringing him out again cannot possibly make sense.

That brings us to the nub of the issue: prison, for somebody such as that, does not seem to be working. A better way of dealing with them would be a community sentence that addressed the fundamental problem, which is that this man is a heroin addict. The right kind of treatment programme is not about being soft on the individual, but about protecting the public. If we can turn his life around so that he is not coming out and reoffending seven more times in a year, that shop is protected and the public are protected from the misery of crime.

It is also worth bearing in mind the prison itself. Our prisons are currently facing a rising tide of violence, a rising tide of drugs and a rising tide of assaults on prison officers and prisoners. An enormous amount of that is driven by short-term prisoners. The way that drugs get into prison is frequently through prisoners bringing them in, often inside their bodies. The people who are coming in and out of those prisons most frequently are, of course, prisoners with short-term prison sentences—people such as the man I met, who are coming in and out eight times in a year. By definition, if someone has been put in prison for 20 years, they only have one opportunity to bring drugs into prison. Someone who is going in and out on short sentences is really contributing to that flow.

Furthermore, someone who is not imprisoned for 20 years does not have the same incentives to engage with the regime. Somebody who is in for 20 years will often settle down and focus on work and education; they need to make a life in prison. Somebody who is in for a few weeks simply does not have the same attitude toward prison. Therefore, from the point of view of a prison governor or prison officer, the prisoners on whom they are spending an enormous amount of time are those on short-term prison sentences.

That relates also to self-harm and suicide: people are at their most vulnerable in prison on their first night there. It is very destabilising to go into a prison. That is when much of the self-harm and suicide happens, so a lot of the prison officers’ focus is on those people who are coming in and out for a few weeks, but it is difficult to do them much good. In Durham Prison, the average length of stay at the moment is 10 days. Ten days cannot possibly be long enough to get someone into an education programme, a work programme or a drug treatment programme.

Prison is and should be a very serious thing. It is very expensive. In certain cases, it costs more than sending someone to Eton. It is incredibly complex to manage. We are dealing potentially with people who could be terrorists, murderers or sex offenders and with a complicated regime, moving people in and out of cells, keeping them safe in prison and dealing with self-harm. That requires an enormous amount of professionalism. Having a safe, stable, decent prison, which would be helped by not having prisoners on short-term sentences, would help us to focus on the more serious prisoners and to do the professional work to turn their lives around.

We must get the right kind of community sentence in place, ensure that those people are not destabilised by being dragged in and out of prison all the time and recognise that the wrong type of short sentence is long enough to harm them but not long enough to change them. It is long enough to harm them because they lose their house, their partner and, if they have one, a job; they come into prison, and—bang!—a few weeks later they are back out on the streets again, with none of the support networks that might keep them stable, they commit crime again and they are back inside prison.

If we can find a way of working with them in the community, we can prove what is absolutely clear from all the research we have done: they are less likely to reoffend after a community sentence than after a short prison sentence. If I take that man in Bedford Prison as an illustration, that individual, given a community sentence, is less likely to go on to commit that ninth shoplifting offence than if he is put in prison for the eighth time. If he is put in prison for the eighth time, he will almost certainly go on to reoffend; in fact, in two thirds of cases, short-term prison sentence prisoners do so. That is endangering the public, not protecting the public.

What I have talked about today is an expansion on what the hon. Member for Islwyn said, referring to the problem that we face. The solution is much more difficult. We will have to bring parties together in Parliament, we will have to discuss it with judges and magistrates, and above all we will have to discuss it with the public. Our primary obligation is to protect the public from crime, to show our moral abhorrence at crime and our sympathy of its victims, and also to explain that in order to protect the public, we need to be practical and focused. One way of being practical and focused is to be honest about the problems of short-sentence prisoners. I will allow the hon. Gentleman some time for closing remarks.

I am so sorry; I would be delighted to continue. Many apologies. Perhaps an intervention from the hon. Member for Islwyn?

I find myself in the happy position of agreeing with everything the Minister has said. His critique of what is going on with short sentences is spot on. I know there are hon. Members on the Opposition side who would be interested to meet with him and talk about a way forward, and I hope we can get those meetings in place. I only regret that the debate was only half an hour; I think we could have spoken all day about this subject.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. To conclude, we must focus on what outcome we want—not the process, which is the prison, but the outcome. The outcome must be to find the right way of protecting the public, and whether we are talking about punishment, deterrence, incapacitation or rehabilitation, there are serious problems with short-term sentences.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.