Thursday, 24 June 2010

Common Sense Cuts

It was refreshing to hear the Howard League for Penal Reform and the probation officers’ union, Napo, bring a bit of common sense to the public debate this week on how best to cut the budget deficit. Both suggested abolishing short prison sentences on the basis that they serve no purpose whatsoever.

As unpalatable as it may be to some not to impose custodial sentences for offences such as ABH, theft and motoring, the hard facts bear this out as a win-win policy. Napo's figures show that 74% of prisoners serving terms of less than 12 months were reconvicted within two years. On the other hand, the chances of reconviction are lowered significantly if the offender is given an intensive supervision order in the community, allied with any programme to tackle underlying problems such as problematic substance use, anger or violence.

The Prison Governors' Association also waded into the debate by backing the abolition of short sentences. Eoin McLennan-Murray, the Association’s president, said small jail terms were ill-judged and stemmed from Britain’s "love affair with custody." We can only hope that this government will be an improvement on the last, which saw the prison population almost double in a decade, despite falling crime. But its not possible to forget Michael Howard’s tenure as Home Secretary.

The cost savings of such a change in sentencing guidelines may be just enough to get George Osborne’s ears to prick up. The difference between jailing offenders for 12 months or less and imposing community rehabilitation programmes is huge – anything up to £300 million per year. If the new government really wanted to find ways to save money that do not affect the most vulnerable people, they should have been prepared to take seriously proposals like the abolition of short prison sentences, as advocated by the people working in the field.

I'll declare an interest in this debate because I worked as a probation officer before my election to the Assembly and I've retained associate membership of Napo. As a probation officers in the valleys, we saw too often the same faces - usually young men who had been jailed briefly for petty offences and not had any form of rehabilitation whilst inside because there simply was not enough time. Prisons hardens many young people. It certainly makes them more likely to re-offend. We regularly saw many first-time offenders jailed for less than 12 months lose everything sometimes for just a few weeks inside; their home, their job and, in some cases, their relationship and kids. Has society improved for having punished this person with a short prison sentence? I would argue the reverse is the case.

In the old days, the Lib Dems stood for fairer and evidence-based criminal justice. They are now in government and committed to making huge cuts. This is a saving that could be made with very little pain. It should be a no-brainer. Somehow, I don't think it'll be as simple as that.

No comments: