IF you wanted to devise a sentencing system pretty much guaranteed to destroy people’s faith in justice, you couldn’t do much better than the current arrangements.
Whoever dreamt up the “early release scheme” for example, under which most convicted criminals are automatically released from prison halfway through their sentences, must have been some kind of evil genius.
If an experienced judge, after hearing all the evidence and the mitigating factors presented by the defence, decides the appropriate sentence to protect the public is eight years in jail, why on earth does the criminal only serve four?
Of course once released early from prison convicted criminals are still technically serving their sentences and are subject to conditions and can be returned to jail if they break them.
But crucially – certainly as far as the victims of crime are concerned – they are at large to commit further offences. And that is precisely what many of them do – the recidivism rates are sky high.
As for the legal farce known as “life sentences”, they have done little other than confuse members of the public.
In a corruption of language, a “life sentence” rarely means that – unless you are talking about the average longevity of a pet dog. Instead a murderer is likely to serve a “life sentence” of around 15 years, and some serve less than that.
In fact the courts have had to invent a whole new term – the “whole life order” – for prisoners who will never be released from prison, such as Peter Sutcliffe, Rosemary West and Levi Bellfield.
Wouldn’t it be far simpler, and easier for the public to understand, if prisoners actually served the jail sentence handed down by the courts and “life sentences” were reserved for those who will spend the rest of their lives behind bars?
At least Justice Secretary Robert Buckland made a start at addressing this issue during the Conservative Party conference when he pledged to “fix the sentencing system” by making sure serious criminals would face tougher jail terms.
Mr Buckland said the Government would scrap the early release of violent or sexual offenders halfway through their sentences and require them to serve two-thirds of their sentence behind bars.
There is circularity to this argument about whether prison works. Crime rates in the UK rose relentlessly from the 1950s, even during periods of economic growth, until the then Home Secretary Michael Howard introduced tough new sentencing guidelines in 1993.
In the following years the prison population doubled while the crime rate tumbled by about 45 per cent. Howard concluded that “prison works”.
Once the crime rate has been reduced, more liberal politicians in the style of Kenneth Clarke, Theresa May and David Gauke, decide that prison doesn’t work at all and we must stop locking people away and use community-based sentences instead.
This is typically followed by rocketing crime rates as has happened recently, including big increases in murder, sexual offences, knife crime, robbery and theft.
Perhaps it is a coincidence – but when we lock more of the bad people up, crime goes down, and when we let more bad people off prison, crime goes up. Baffling, isn’t it? Well it is if you work for the Home Office.
Luckily for Mr Buckland there is hard evidence to suggest that tough sentencing does work – and forcing prisoners to serve more of their sentences – has a dramatic impact on cutting crime, quite simply because offenders are behind bars for longer.
A study, carried out by academics at Birmingham University for the think-tank Civitas, looked at sentencing data from 43 forces in England and Wales between 1993 and 2008.
It concluded that if prisoners served two thirds, rather than half of their sentences, it would result in 21,000 fewer burglaries and 11,000 fewer frauds.
The researchers found that even small increases in sentences would have a beneficial impact on crime rates. Increasing sentences by just one month – from 15.4 to 16.4 months – would result in 4,800 few burglaries the following year.
A key point to remember here is that according to Ministry of Justice figures around half of all crimes are committed by just 10 per cent of “super prolific offenders”. If we target them and make sure they are locked away where they can’t do any more damage, our homes and streets will be safer places.