For over twenty years I have worked within the Criminal Justice System and the most incredible change I have seen in that time has been the reduction of the actual amount of time a prisoner serves of their sentence. The difference between the sentence a prisoner is given and the actual time he spends behind bars has never been greater.
Parole has existed in the UK in one form or another since the middle ages, yet in the last ten years the ability for prisoners to be released early from their sentences has been extended to an unprecedented degree. We now have a sentencing regime that can only be described as dishonest. It undermines the expectations of the victims of crime; it confuses the public and belittles the Judges and Magistrates who imposed the sentence.
The current sentencing system allows for early release automatically half way through a sentence – a provision that was only brought in for longer sentences by this Government. Perhaps most controversially, this Government has also allowed for prisoners to be released with an electronic tag up to three months early; a provision we have consistently opposed and committed ourselves to abolish.
The early release provisions don’t stop there! Since 2007 prisoners can be released 18 days early from their sentences just to help ease prison overcrowding. This so called ‘End of Custody Licence’ applies not just to long term prisoners but to those who have been sentenced to as little as a month. It seems that the alternative solution of building more prisons didn’t appeal to Gordon Brown’s budgeting when he was Chancellor.
If all of this were not enough, a fairly new provision allows for offenders who have been released on bail subject to a curfew to have half a day taken off their sentence for each day they have been subject to that curfew. Honestly, I am not making this up!
The really astonishing cases come when a number of provisions coincide so that the prisoner is eligible for early release by virtue of more than one of these schemes. It is easy to see how fairly lengthy terms of imprisonment result in the offender spending little or even no time at all behind bars.
I have not even covered compassionate leave, temporary licence provisions, parole board decisions, overnight leave in anticipation of release, removal of foreign nationals and many other ways of not serving a sentence that is given.
We have reached the stage where there are so many ways for an offender to avoid serving a prison sentence that even those who work in the Criminal Justice System are often left baffled by its complexity. I know of very few criminal defence lawyers who know exactly how much time an offender will serve of a prison term. So if the experts don’t know how can we expect anyone else to know?
Our sentencing system needs more honesty and greater certainty if prison sentences are to act as a true deterrent to crime. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard offenders immediately ask “How long is that?” when given a prison term. I am very much in favour of a system that ensures X happens when Y offence is committed, yet the current lack of certainty prevents it.
The obvious result of our misleading system is that the victims of crime are let down. Too often a victim will walk out of Court, having seen the perpetrator of the crime sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence. They feel that justice has been done, that fairness has prevailed, that the streets are a bit safer, only to see that same person walking the streets a few weeks later. It is surely time for a rethink.