Bill Carmichael: If top judges have no faith in community sentences instead of prison, why should the law-abiding public?

Do short-term prison sentences work - or not?
Do short-term prison sentences work - or not?
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WHILE Parliament fiddles about desperately trying to delay or cancel Brexit the list of urgent troubles requiring immediate government action grows ever longer – and to that list you can add the escalating crisis in our prisons.

According to a report released this week from the Commons Justice Committee, there are growing safety problems among the 82,000-strong prison population with assaults and incidents of self-harm at an all time high.

The report quoted figures released earlier this year by the Ministry of Justice that show there were nearly 34,000 assaults and 53,000 self-harm incidents in prisons last year – and both figures have almost doubled in the last decade.

Mark Fairhurst of the Prison Officers’ Association is quoted as saying: “You are getting feral young kids who have no respect for authority, have no respect for themselves and have bullied their way through life. They have no language other than violence and they do not like the word no.”

So what can be done about it?

According to Justice Secretary David Gauke, the solution is to stop sending some criminals to prison in the first place.

He has called for jail sentences of fewer than six months to be scrapped and replaced with “robust” community sentences, alongside treatment for drug addiction and mental health problems.

He said short sentences disrupted the lives of criminals – as if this is a bad thing – and concluded “prison simply isn’t working”.

I think we can all agree that rehabilitation, education and treatment for drug and mental health problems should be priorities for our prison system – although we shouldn’t kid ourselves that these things come cheap or will work for everyone.

But is the solution to increasing violence in our prisons to allow more violent criminals to walk the streets among ordinary people? Isn’t that simply shifting the problems onto law-abiding communities where vulnerable people will inevitably suffer? As Shipley MP Philip Davies has pointed out, prison is already used very much as a last resort. He unearthed figures that showed that last year offenders sentenced to six months or fewer in prison had already racked up an average of 55 previous offences each, and had received an average of five community orders, which clearly had not worked. They included around 2,000 knife offenders. Mr Davies commented: “In a knife crime epidemic, who in their right minds would not want to see these offenders in prison? At least, while they are serving their short sentences they are not continuing offending.”

Another problem with Mr Gauke’s plan is that the “robust” community sentences he recommends are anything but – in fact they are so soft that they are frequently simply ignored by convicted offenders.

Who says so? Well, none other than Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Speaking at a House of Lords Constitutional Committee this week, Lord Burnett said scrapping jail sentences of fewer than six months would leave the courts with no effective penalties to deal with repeated offenders who defy the courts and fail to carry out community sentences.

He added: “The problem is that sentencers lost a lot of faith in non-custodial sentences because of the failure for them to be monitored properly.

“There was a phenomenon of multiple breaches of community orders which were simply not being reported back to the courts, so faith was lost in quite a lot of what was going on.”

A simple question for Mr Gauke – if the distinguished and experienced judge who is head of the entire judiciary in England and Wales has little faith in your “robust” community sentences, then why should the rest of us have any?

Of course the Government has a responsibility to ensure prisons are safe places – and in an ideal world they should also include education and training that will enable offenders to build an honest and better life for themselves on release.

But the Government also has a responsibility to keep people safe from violent criminals who intend to do them harm. When these two obligations are placed on the scales, public safety must always carry more weight.

The truth is that if Mr Gauke wishes to abolish short sentences he has a long, long way to go to convince the public – and his senior judges – that the alternative community sentences he recommends really are “robust”.