Rough Justice: the failure of short prison sentences

28 Jun 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Jun 2018

This week a government minister made an astonishing admission that should prompt debate about how we punish offenders for minor crimes.

It is also another example of  Northern Ireland’s much maligned administration performing better than Whitehall.

Rory Stewart told a Commons Select Committee that his efforts to reduce the prison population were not working and said he had no alternative but to ask for funds to build more prisons.

He has consequently given the go-ahead for the construction of two new prisons and will press for more. He predicts that the prison population in England and Wales will grow from 83,000 today to 93,000 by 2022.

So therefore at a time of continued austerity and public spending cuts we will have the unprecedented scenario of a government minister asking for money for something he doesn’t want and admits doesn’t work.

The position in Northern Ireland is nothing like as bad. According to the latest available statistics we have 87 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the population; while the equivalent figure for England and Wales is 148.

There is no call for more prison cells in Northern Ireland where the prison population is gradually falling year-on-year. There is no room for complacency however, as there are still too many banged up than need to be.

The core of the problem is the proven ineffectiveness of so-called “short, sharp, shock” sentences, much beloved of members of the hang ‘em flog ‘em brigade.

In 2015 88% of prison sentences handed down by Northern Ireland courts were for 12 months or less. Yet re-offending rates for those on short term sentences is more than 50%. In England the figure is closer to 67%.

Prison is expensive. It is supposed to punish, but also rehabilitate. For shorter sentences this just does not work, there is no time to help people turn their lives around.

Contrast that with the non custodial Enhanced Combination Orders piloted by the Probation Service Northern Ireland last year whose re-offending rates were 17%. They had the additional benefit of saving money -  the cost per offender is £9,000 per annum, as opposed to £57,643 in prison. This pilot is being extended, it has the support of the local judiciary and is already starting to reduce the number of short sentences here.

In contrast the probation service in England and Wales has been privatised. This has led to patchy performance and a loss of confidence in its efficacy, not just amongst the public but also judges and magistrates.

They prefer to impose prison sentences, or suspended prison sentences because they at least know what that entails. In Northern Ireland judges trust the probation service which is reasonably well funded and remains in public hands, and can point to its record in helping to reduce offending.

There is another factor at play – the prevalence of mental ill health amongst the prison population. 64% of male and 50% of female prisoners in Northern Ireland have a personality disorder, for example. This raises questions about the suitability of current prison regimes to provide the necessary therapies and treatments. The widespread availability of drugs and the frequent instances of violence are hardly positive indicators for inmates with mental ill health.

In Northern Ireland the charity Mindwise worked with the probation services and others to provide a guide to how to deal with people with mental ill health in prison. It’s important not least because a failure to recognise and treat mental ill health is not just bad for the sufferer, it can also be very bad for society as well - mental health problems can be drivers for crime.

Northern Ireland still has a long way to go, however. The latest inspection of Maghaberry Prison last August concluded: "Maghaberry Prison does not provide a therapeutic environment.  We were therefore concerned to find the prison was being used as a safe place by the courts while mental health assessments took place. 
"In our view this is inappropriate and we have recommended the Departments of Justice and Health should develop an agreed pathway to prevent individuals being admitted to prison for an emergency mental health assessment."

The solution, of course, is a safe, secure alternative to prison for these assessment, and work is progressing on this.

There is overwhelming evidence that prison sentences of less than a year do not work. Alternative sentences are more effective and cost a fraction of a prison stay. Therefore  current penal policy is a waste of public money.

Mr Stewart is well aware of that. He told the committee: “I don’t feel, I’m afraid, even though ideally I’d like the prison population to go down, that’s very likely to happen because I’m not sure there’s the will among the public and the will amongst parliament to take the measures to reduce that population.”

The result in England and Wales has been for funding to be set on the basis that the prison population will fall without taking the measures in sentencing policy and beefing up resources for alternative sentencing policies that would enable that to happen, hence the parlous, often dangerous state of many prisons.

Mr Stewart’s boss David Gauke has been even more forceful on the topic, pointing out that the prison population in England and Wales has almost doubled in 25 years but admitting that there was a lack of confidence in non-custodial alternatives.

We did not have long to wait to see what this “lack of confidence” means in practice. The Daily Express reported the story under the following headline: “SOFT JUSTICE: Fury at 'idiotic' plans to AXE jail terms under a year due to overcrowding”

Readers’ reaction was as expected: some comments called for the reintroduction of hard labour – one even had the novel solution of deporting criminals to a deserted island and inviting them to survive there if they can. Over on the Mail website there were suggestions that if short sentences don’t work the logical answer would be to lengthen them. There were also calls to bring back the birch, execute some prisoners to make more room; stopping “inadequate” people from having children and making prisons as brutal as possible. Many readers attacked Mr Stewart for holding such views, saying he was one of the reasons why the country was “going to the dogs”. One even offered to birch him for his statement.

Little wonder that there is so little appetite amongst Mr Stewart’s colleagues in government for taking the necessary measures. Evidence, no matter how strong, carries no weight against this kind of attitude.

Thankfully politicians in Northern Ireland tend to be a little more enlightened, not least because quite a number of them have had first hand experience of prison life.

So yes, British politicians can sneer as much as they like at the dysfunctionality of Northern Ireland’s governance. But as we demonstrated in the case of health last week, there are some areas where we have managed to avoid the mess they have got themselves into.


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