IS it really too much to ask that if someone is sentenced to, say, four years in prison, they serve those four years in prison?
Having honesty in sentencing is not exactly rocket science. Yet our current system is anything but honest or transparent.
Nothing makes the point better than the scandalous temporary release from an open prison of the so-called “Skull Cracker”. Despite being given 13 life sentences for armed robbery, he was apparently eligible for release after serving just eight years of these latest sentences.
I really think it is high time we stopped allowing ourselves to be fobbed off with sentences like these which are clearly a bad joke. How can anyone serving 13 life sentences ever be considered for release? If they are not really life sentences, and clearly they are not, then people should stop pretending they are the judiciary’s ultimate sanction.
Most prisoners get half their sentence taken off automatically – a ridiculous law introduced by the last Labour government. Other prisoners get released a quarter of the way through their sentence – like the Denis MacShanes, Vicky Pryces and Chris Huhnes of this world – and spend the other quarter at home on a home detention curfew. Others get credit for time spent on a curfew at home before they are even given their sentence. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact the whole sentencing con has got so bad that there are people working in prison spending their time just simply trying to determine when prisoners should be released. It is not difficult to work out why. There is a 172-page Prison Service Instruction note on sentence calculations and there are even dedicated helplines at the Ministry of Justice dealing solely with sentence calculation queries.
The argument in support of these complicated sentences was often used when offenders were released early for good behaviour in prison – although I would rather have seen an increase in sentence for bad behaviour. However, release is no longer dependent on any behaviour in many cases.
Seeing as early release is so routine, why we don’t we say that judges should just sentence offenders to the time they will actually serve? All that would need to happen would be that any time spent on remand could be knocked off – and it would take 10 seconds to work out what sentence should then be served.
However, something I discovered recently takes this dishonesty in sentencing to a new low. Offenders serving less than a year in prison are no longer subject to any licence conditions at all. So, they get released halfway through their sentence (or whenever) and that is it. Only those serving sentences of over a year are released on licence.
Now, people might be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of being released on licence is that you have to comply with licence conditions and not re-offend. Failing to comply or reoffending would, you might imagine, mean being returned to prison to serve the original sentence. Alas, this is not actually necessarily the case thanks to a terrible concept that has crept into the system called “Fixed Term Recalls”.
The term does not instantly set off alarm bells – but it really should. A Fixed Term Recall is where the offender breaches their licence and is returned to prison for a mere 28 days. Not the rest of their prison term and not even most of it. Just for 28 days. Fixed Term Recalls were introduced in 2008 to basically get more people out of prison and that has certainly worked as their use has grown and grown.
I found out a staggering fact recently. In the nine months from January to September 2013, of the prisoners serving sentences of one year or more for the most serious offences who had been released on licence before the end of their sentence, 785 were not only recalled to serve just 28 days instead of the rest of their original sentences for breaching their licence, but they were subsequently recalled again to serve another 28 day spell and then released again on at least another occasion.
This policy is, in my opinion, completely indefensible. I tabled an amendment in Parliament last week to end this practice for good. Unfortunately there were too many politicians who were not prepared to support its abolition but I believe that if you are let out of prison early, and you do not behave or you reoffend, there should be no other possible course of action but for you to return to prison to serve the rest of your sentence in prison.
Or, better still, as I started off by saying, offenders should have to serve the sentence they are given by the court in the first place and then that would be the end of the matter.