Iain Duncan Smith calls for end of short prison sentences

Former Conservative leader rails against "farcical" system

Prison sentences lasting less than two months should be abolished and replaced by longer, tougher community order penalties, Iain Duncan Smith has said.

In a speech to be given on Monday outlining a revamp of the justice system, he calls short-term sentences "farcical" as there is no evidence they reformed persistent petty criminals. He claimed they too often substituted for community orders that were "toothless" in their current incarnations.

The speech is in support of a new report from the influential think tank Centre of Social Justice, of which he is head. Entitled "Order in the Courts", it argues that centralisation of the justice system under the Labour government has been "an expensive failure" that has seen a 30 per cent rise in the prison population, overwhelmingly constituting those from "deprived communities".

To combat persistent reoffenders, courts should have a greater mandate to sentence those who break their probation conditions to prison. There should also be a greater emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation for drug and mental health problems.

Figures from the report show that 30 per cent of those starting a community sentence have 11 or more previous convictions, and estimates that reoffending costs the country approximately £11 billion a year.

Justice secretary Jack Straw said some of the report's conclusions were "unfounded", but that the government would study the report.

"A big effort has gone into tough community sentences as alternatives to short-term custody - one of the suggestions in the report - and generally these are working well," Straw said.

The Conservative party has welcomed the principles behind the report. Shadow justice spokesman Dominic Grieve said: "Iain Duncan Smith is correct that short sentences are a poor device for rehabilitation; they tend to be imposed because courts and magistrates have tried everything else and it has failed. If we are to reduce the number of short sentences then we have got to provide non-custodial alternatives that are seen to work."

However, he said the party could not yet pledge to abolish short sentences as they do not think a sufficient community sentencing and motoring system was currently in place.

Prison reform groups have also applauded the moves and urged parties to take on board the advice.

Make Justice Work director Roma Hooper told the BBC: "In reality we should be aiming to follow Scotland's lead and abolish all sentences of under six months but this is a good start and a brave proposal from a key Tory think tank.

"Prison reform is often seen in zero sum terms but relatively small tweaks such as abolishing short-term prison sentences would have a colossal impact on improving Britain's prisons and tackling the cycle of low-level crime blighting our society."