Obviously these aren’t normal times, but if they were you can be sure that David Gauke’s announcement last week about abolishing short prison sentences would be getting a lot more attention – critical and supportive.
The Justice Secretary’s speech merits a full and considered read. His critique of sentences of six months or less was the most headline-grabbing element. But while it contains the news hook that “prison isn’t working”, the reality is rather more pragmatic than a kneejerk reaction to such words might suggest:
‘In the last five years, just over a quarter of a million custodial sentences have been given to offenders for six months or less; over 300,000 sentences were for 12 months or less.
But nearly two thirds of those offenders go on to commit a further crime within a year of being released.
27% of all reoffending is committed by people who have served short sentences of 12 months or less.
For the offenders completing these short sentences whose lives are destabilised, and for society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working.’
I have written before about the importance of developing a better Conservative perspective on prison – not shying away from the need to punish, but acknowledging that the interests of victims, taxpayers and society at large are poorly served when we fail to also rehabilitate criminals.
It’s hard to disagree with Gauke’s logic about judging policy on the basis of its effectiveness:
‘Where we do spend on the criminal justice system, we must spend on what works. Why would we spend taxpayers’ money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, that makes us less safe?’
There are, however, two questions that he will likely face from Conservatives who are uncomfortable either with the policy of effectively getting rid of short sentences.
First, is he certain that this is an inherent problem with short prison sentences, rather than with rehabilitation in British prisons as they currently operate?
Second, is the best solution simply to shift people who would receive short sentences onto the reformed community orders Gauke is proposing, or might the answer be to extend some of their sentences beyond six months?
On the first question, I suspect the answer will be that it’s an exercise in hypotheticals. If we had better or different prisons, then maybe they’d be able to do a drastically better job to prevent these high reoffending rates…but we don’t, and until we do the argument stands.
On the second, I wonder if he might have a bit more trouble. His speech already noted, somewhat defensively, that “as a matter of fact it is clearly not true that sentences overall are getting shorter or justice is somehow getting softer”. That may be true but the need he felt to engage with the argument betrays an awareness that people generally believe the opposite. He might yet have to throw the public and his MPs some red meat to sate any concerns they might have that he or the system he oversees is going soft.
Considered in that context, it’s alarming to consider how easily the Justice Secretary’s mission could be knocked off course by events outside his control. He is out to reduce crime by cutting reoffending rates, through what he calls “smart justice”. In theory, the ongoing and all-too vivid issue of violent crime ought to underline his argument that what has been tried before hasn’t succeeded.
But this is a field where the politics is usually dominated by gut instincts, not cold logic. Gauke’s argument is reasoned and reasonable, but it could find itself overwhelmed if a particularly heinous crime, or a particularly bad string of crimes, grabs the public’s attention. If he wants to act, therefore, he needs to do so quickly.