Imran Hussain: Why costly short prison sentences help no-one

WE cannot shy away from the fact that many short sentences simply do not work. The reoffending rate for those serving a sentence shorter than 12 months is higher than that for community orders or suspended sentences.

Are short-term prison sentences in the public interest?

That is causing real damage not just to communities and victims, but to the public finances. Short sentence reoffending is conservatively estimated to cost the economy between £7bn and £10bn a year; others rightly say that the figure could be £15bn or more.

It is glaringly obvious why short sentences are so ineffective. An offender who is sentenced to just a few months or even a few weeks will still lose their job, their home and their family.

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These are all things that offenders themselves say are factors that influence whether they reoffend. The problems are exactly the same as those that an offender serving a sentence that runs into years experiences, but crucially, people serving short sentences are not in prison long enough to put in place steps to address these needs before their release.

Imran Hussain is the Labour MP for Bradford East.

An offender serving a short sentence also has no time for purposeful activity, which is proven to reduce reoffending. They have no time to equip themselves with skills or gain qualifications to get a job and pay for a home after release.

In most cases a course cannot be taught and skills cannot be gained in a matter of months, particularly when much of the time is spent isolated in cells due to the lack of experienced prison officers and the other issues that we face in the emergency that exists within our prisons.

There is also no time to get help with regard to other drivers of offending, such as mental health issues and substance misuse. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons states that one prisoner in three has mental health issues – a problem that is undoubtedly much greater than is portrayed.

It is clear that we need to end the use of ineffective short sentences, but although the Government has floated the idea on several occasions, the reality is that we have yet to see them take any concrete action.

The proportion of short custodial sentences has barely shifted in the past three years. More staggeringly, community sentences, which can provide an alternative to short custodial sentences, have fallen by 78 per cent over the past five years, with the fastest decline being for non-violent theft and drug offences.

I am even less assured by the Government’s record, because every major policy announcement that the Ministry of Justice has made on prisons falls short of the mark and has come to nothing thus far.

The female offender strategy promised five new residential women’s centres – a rehashed Labour idea – which are nowhere near being built. The educational employment strategy scrapped careers advice in prison, which is a negative step, and has not done much beyond that. The prisons safety project is failing to deliver improvements.

If we have learnt anything from the MoJ it is that it is all noise and no substance. I wish that were not the case. The overuse of short sentences is a substantial and important issue.

A study conducted last year with the support of the Magistrates Association found that 37 per cent of magistrates are not confident that community sentences are an effective alternative, 45 per cent are not confident that community sentences currently rehabilitate effectively, and almost half believe that community sentences cannot be tailored to suit the individual needs of an offender. By contrast, a survey in 2003 showed that magistrates had much higher levels of confidence in the ability of community sentences to punish and rehabilitate offenders.​

The Government must show that they are capable of more than just words and setting the mood music; they must prove that they are serious. The Minister must set out what they are doing to end the huge overuse of ineffective short sentences, which serve little purpose in our justice system, including what action they are taking to stop the dramatic fall in the use of community sentences in recent years and how long it will be before the MOJ gets the proportion of community sentences back to previous levels.

Addressing this important issue can reduce reoffending, so I extend an offer to work with Ministers to bring reoffending down. However, that offer is not a blank cheque. A new consensus must be built on strong proposals by the Government.

Given the growing number of damning reports on these probation changes and their failure to reduce reoffending, Ministers must commit to ending the failed privatisation experiment, which cannot deliver the viable and robust alternatives to custody that are needed, and bring this back into public ownership.

Imran Hussain is the Labour MP for Bradford East. He is a Shadow Justice Minister and spoke in a Parliament debate on reoffending. This is an edited version.