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Madness of abolishing the short, sharp shock


LAST month the think tank Civitas reported on a recent proposal by Justice Secretary David Gauke and junior Justice Minister Rory Stewart to abolish prison sentences of less than six months for the majority of offenders and instead ‘rehabilitate’ them via some form of community supervision.

It should not have needed them to explain why this extraordinary proposal flies in the face of reality. The evidence gathered for at least the last 50 years has consistently shown that prison sentences, even those of short duration, are considerably more effective at protecting the public from crime than non-custodial sentences. (1) We must assume that David Gauke and Rory Stewart know this, and are aware that throughout this period policy-driven efforts to rehabilitate offenders subject to probation supervision have failed, as shown by their continuous and disastrously high reconviction rates. (2)

So how are we to view these wishful-thinking policy aims, which will inflict about 30,000 repeat offenders on the public?. Is this a form of ideological indoctrination or bullying, driven by their fierce anti-prison sentiments, which brook no argument? They say that short prison sentences are ineffective for rehabilitation. So too, as their department knows, is the supervision of offenders in the community, but more glaringly so. Their crimes do not stop, whereas even a short prison sentence gives the public a respite from their reoffending.

Is the truth that Gauke and Stewart simply want to ease prison pressure? If this is no more and no less than a cost-saving exercise, who are the beneficiaries? The impact of crime, though borne by us all, falls most heavily on social class 5, and therefore should be seen as a tax on the poor. (3) So much for their ‘liberalism’.

It is an incontrovertible fact that the financial costs of crime far outstrip the running costs of our prisons. Even were this not the case the human costs of crime are incalculable, and can only be made worse if fewer offenders are jailed.

Or could it be that Mr Gauke simply wants to make a name for himself as ‘the First Justice Secretary to get rid of six month sentences’; and is prepared to do this despite the fact that it defies the evidence concerning public safety. I hope not.

Whatever the explanation, the disregard shown by these Conservative ministers for the harm caused to the public by the thousands of serial offenders who will evade prison if their proposal becomes law is breathtaking.

Their enthusiasm for this change is not just ill-judged, it has an amateurish ring to it. Rory Stewart claims that ending short sentences ‘would enable respectable people to hold on to their jobs and reputations’. Does he not know that the vast majority of those given short prison sentences are prolific offenders who’ve spurned previous chances to reform? Or that the majority of so-called first offenders have long histories of non-detected criminal behaviour?

Does Mr Stewart have any idea about the nature of the people who are imprisoned, or of how they think, behave, or what motivates them? David Gauke proposes that violence and sex crimes should be exempt from the ban on short jail sentences. Good. But if imprisonment is the answer to violence and sex crimes, why is it not for others? As Civitas reports, these changes will allow thousands of prolific criminals convicted of burglary, theft, public disorder, possessions of weapons (including knives), drug offences, shoplifting etc, to be released back into the community, free to continue their offending. Don’t the public have as much right to be protected from these offences as from sex and violent crimes?

Are Gauke and Stewart also unaware that offenders convicted of violent crimes are overwhelmingly the same criminals convicted of lesser crimes and vice versa? Government reports going back 40 years show that that irrespective of the offence for which offenders were placed on probation, they were likely to be reconvicted for other types of crime. Those convicted of violence, for example, were later reconvicted for such crimes as theft, burglary, fraud, forgery, criminal damage, etc. Those convicted of ’minor crimes’ were likely to be reconvicted for more serious crimes, such as sex and violence. In 2000, the Sentencing Advisory Panel highlighted that of all those convicted of possession of offensive weapons, two-thirds had been convicted for other types of offence. (4)

This even applies to killers. As far back as 1971, a Home Office sample of almost 400 offenders convicted of ‘normal murders’, showed the majority had previous convictions for property offences. (5) Fred West was a prolific killer and a prolific thief.

Crime is not a disease for which offenders need treatment. They offend because they want to or because they can. Crime pays well and is tax free, the hours are reasonable; the risks are few and diminishing all the time. Offenders do not need rehabilitation, nor do they need yet more protection from the justice system. The public need more protection from them. Criminals need to be stopped in their tracks. As do Messrs Gauke and Stewart’s foolhardy and dangerous proposals.


(1) Longer prison sentences are associated with much reduced reconviction rates as follows: less than 12 months 60 per cent, 12 months to two years, 39 per cent; two to four years, 34 per cent; four to ten years, 25 per cent; ten years plus, 14 per cent. In: Ministry of Justice Proven reoffending statistics quarterly: October 2013 to September 2014 (then choose Proven Reoffending Tables: October 2012 to September 2014. Table C2a.

(2) Reconviction rate for community sentences reported as 56 per cent over one year in Ministry of Justice, 2013 Compendium of reoffending statistics and analysis; but over 60 per cent for males (the majority) and over 70 per cent for those with multiple previous convictions in: Prison Statistics, England and Wales, 1999.

In addition: Several investigations have found that offenders commit hundreds of offences in a 12-month period. For example, the Hertfordshire Police found that offenders under probation supervision in their area committed on average 112 offences per year. But this was based only on vehicle and burglary crime, so the total of the crimes committed every year by them is likely to have been much higher. The Hertfordshire Constabulary C2 Programme. 

The Halliday Report estimated that the average offender carried out 140 offences per year: The Halliday Report, Making Punishments Work, published by the Home Office, July 2001. Quoted in ‘Number of Offences Committed by Offenders in a Year Self-Report 140 Offences per year’, published by CIVITAS, 2010.

NB: All reconviction rates based on the 5 per cent of crimes detected. Therefore true re-offending rates likely to be nearer 100 per cent.

Reconviction rates are based on just one court appearance per year. They are therefore likely to represent millions of crimes per year committed by supervised offenders.

(3) Peter Cuthbertson: Poverty & Crime: Why a new war on criminals would help the poor most, Civitas July 2018


Poorest suffer most from violent crime 

(4) i. Home Office Probation Statistics, England and Wales, 1979.

ii. Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Issue 18/93, published July 1993 (reports on reconvictions of offenders given probation and community service orders in 1987)

iii. Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Offender Management Caseload Statistics 2004, Issue 17/05, England and Wales, published December 2005

iv. Sentencing Advisory Panel, Advice to the Court of Appeal, Offensive Weapons, 2000

(5) Home Office Research Study no. 31, on Homicide (1971)

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David Fraser
David Fraser
David Fraser is the author of Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence. He is a former senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now the National Crime Agency).

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