Necessity is the mother of invention and it is necessity that has driven the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, to announce a new approach to sentencing. In future, there will be a presumption against custodial sentences below 12 months.
Quite right, too. This is broadly the policy I sought to implement in 2019 when in the same role. The rationale is that short sentences are not effective in reducing reoffending and can even make matters worse. It is much better to focus on effective community sentences than put people inside for a short period of time when no effective rehabilitative support will be provided.
The necessity is that we are running out of prison places. Ever since the government announced its commitment to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers, it has been inevitable that demand for prison places was soon going to exceed supply. The Ministry of Justice has worked frantically to increase the supply of prison places but it was only a matter of time before ministers had to accept that they were also going to have to reduce demand, as I argued in August.
One can overstate the impact of the short sentence policy on the prison population. Whereas half of offenders sentenced to prison get a sentence of 12 months or less, at any one time there are relatively few people in prison serving less than 12 months (a snapshot in June of this year showed that there were 3,645 prisoners in this category). Nor is it a policy that can be applied immediately, given the need to take legislation through parliament. It is the early release scheme announced by Chalk that will ease the immediate pressures.
Chalk has been bolder than his immediate predecessors by moving away from short sentences but that is the relatively easy bit. The dramatic growth in our prison population (it was 43,000 thirty years ago and has more than doubled since) has been driven by longer sentences for serious offences. Yesterday’s announcement on longer sentences for rapists may well be popular and tactically astute but – like the many similar announcements we have heard in recent decades – it will increase the pressures on the prison population in a few years’ time. If that is the country’s priority, so be it, but we will have to move swiftly to build new prisons and be prepared to pay for those additional places. It also has to be said that almost every other European country manages to get by with a significantly lower prison population.
One should not be too grudging, however. Chalk is one of the most capable members of the cabinet and deserves credit for grasping the issue. He is also right to highlight the potential for electronic tagging, which should play a bigger role, not just for those undertaking a non-custodial sentence. More prisoners should become eligible for home detention curfew, by which prisoners are released under an electronically monitored curfew.
The government has stumbled into this situation. There was a lack of joined-up thinking during the Johnson administration in failing to recognise that what happens in one part of the criminal justice system (recruiting more police officers) will have implications for another (prison places). But if this signals a more evidence-led approach and less reliance on prison, it is one to be welcomed.