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HomeCulture WarWhy the liberals are so wrong about soft sentences

Why the liberals are so wrong about soft sentences


Boris Johnson’s welcome ‘urgent review’ and promised U-turn on Rory Stewart’s softer prison sentencing policy has sparked a predictable spate of liberal criticism, led by BBC Home Affairs correspondent Mark Easton, Labour’s Diane Abbott and Francis Crook of the Howard League of Penal Reform. 

Earlier this year on TCW crime expert David Fraser comprehensively debunked this liberal critique. Anyone serious about cutting crime must make prison sentences longer. This article was first published on February 3, 2019.

IT WAS recently announced that Prisons Minister Rory Stewart wants to scrap jail sentences of less than six months in England and Wales. Both he and Justice Secretary David Gauke announced this was their ambition as soon as they took up office some months ago. ‘This is a debate I must win,’ claims Stewart (presumably irrespective of what the public thinks). He also announced that short sentences ‘are long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you’.

Putting these ideas into practice means they are prepared to ignore the obvious, which is that prison sentences, even of short duration, protect the public from crime while the offender is locked up. If a new health minister similarly ignored the obvious and argued for the use of medicines known to be harmful, he would be removed from his post and probably subjected to a psychiatric examination.

Stewart argues that the public would be safer ‘if we have a good community sentence’ (as opposed to short prison sentences). His language drips with snake oil. The phrase ‘if we had a good community sentence’ suggests he knows that the community supervision of offenders fails to protect us and makes no difference to the offender’s behaviour, but wants to avoid saying so. In fact the threat to public safety from this form of sentencing is now worse than it ever was. In 1979 the reconviction rates of all offenders dealt with in this way was, measured over two years, 50 per cent (1a). In 1990 it was 55 per cent (1b). In 2013 it was 56 per cent (1c) measured over one year. But the failure rates of the majority i.e. males under 25 years, are far worse, reaching more than 80 per cent for those who already have previous convictions, as most do, when the period of community supervision starts (1d).

The 56 per cent reconviction rate computes conservatively to almost a million and a half crimes committed by them each year. Yet in reality this failure rate is far worse, because it is based on just the tiny minority of crimes cleared up (2), so their true re-offending rate is likely to be nearer 100 per cent, which means the numbers of crimes committed by supervised criminals will run, every year, into the millions.

Not only do criminals given community sentences not stop committing crime during their period of supervision, but their reconviction rates go on increasing for years after the sentence has been completed, reaching almost 70 per cent after nine years (3). Thus there is no time when the public is protected from their criminality, be it before, during or after their community sentence has finished. On the other hand, even a short prison sentence will give the public a break from their offending (whether or not the offenders continue to commit crime when released).

Gauke and Stewart are also in denial over the fact that while offending gets worse after a period of supervision, it reduces the longer the prison term served by the offender i.e. 60 per cent for those released from sentences of less than a year, 39 per cent for sentences of 2-4 years, 25 per cent for those of 4-10 years, and 14 per cent for sentences of over 10 years (4). Thus, if Gauke and Stewart are serious about cutting crime, the solution to their concern about short prison sentences is to make them longer, and stop placing persistent offenders under the supervision of the probation service and send them to jail instead.

The ridiculous nature of their objectives is highlighted by the stated aim of making sex and violent crimes the exception to their proposed ban on prison sentences of less than six months. Stewart’s claim that short sentences are ‘too short to heal’ but ‘long enough to damage you’ means that by his reckoning, it’s acceptable to make sex and violent offenders ‘worse’, but not others. The notion that prisons ‘damage’ offenders, or makes them worse, is a threadbare argument. When offenders go to jail they are already highly criminalised, with little new to learn. If they do discover new criminal tactics whilst in prison, they are perfectly free to ignore them.

But prisons are not, never were, nor can ever be, places where offenders are ‘healed’. They are not hospitals or therapy centres. Does Stewart still believe that offenders commit crime because of some overbearing social or financial problem, causing them to behave in ways against their own will? If this were the case we would have solved the crime problem by now, because for the last six decades at least this belief has determined how offenders have been supervised in the community. Yet all forms of support, financial and practical, as well as individual counselling, and programmes aimed at getting the offender to change the way he thinks and behaves, have demonstrably and consistently failed to have any effect on his willingness to commit crime (5a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k).

That Stewart and Gauke are prepared to argue that their homespun philosophy should become law indicates either a stunning degree of ignorance among ministers and officials about the nature of crime and the motivation of criminals, or a brutal callousness in their preparedness to inflict yet more persistent offenders on to a vulnerable public.

In August 2018, Stewart vowed to resign in a year if he failed to reduce drug use and violence in 10 target jails in England. Let’s hope he does not wait that long.


1a. Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Issue 34/86, Reconvictions of Those Given Probation Orders (published 1986)

1b. Home Office, Probation Statistics England and Wales, 1993

1c. Ministry of Justice, 2013 Compendium of reoffending statistics and analysis 

1d. Home Office, Prison Statistics England and Wales, 1999/2000

2. Home Office Research & Statistics Department, Digest 4: Information on the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales, 1999; Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Issue 21/98, The British Crime Survey, England and Wales. (Summarised in D Fraser: A Land Fit For Criminals, An Insider’s View of Crime Punishment and Justice in the UK)

3. Ministry of Justice, Compendium of reoffending statistics and analysis, 2010 

4. GOV.UK Ministry of Justice Proven reoffending statistics quarterly: October 2013 to September to September 2014 / Proven reoffending Tables: October 2012-to September 2014. Table C2a 

5a. Accredited Programmes, NAPO News, Issue 157, March 2004 (failure of cognitive/behavioural programmes)

5b. S Merrington and J Stanley: What Works: Revisiting the Evidence in England and Wales, Probation Journal, 5:1, pp.7-20,2004 (failure of cognitive/behavioural programmes – up to 80 per cent reconviction rates over two years)

5c. ‘Jail thinking courses show you can’t teach an old lag new tricks’, The Times, 7 August 2003 (failure of cognitive/behavioural programmes)

5d. ‘Prisoners fail to curb the inner man’, The Times, 18 November 2003 (failure of cognitive/behavioural programmes)

5e. HO Bulletin 15/04 Offender Management Caseload Statistics 2003, published December 2004  (failure of specialist drug treatment orders, 80 per cent-plus reconviction rates)

5f. Home Office Research Findings no.184: The Impact of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders on Offending: two-year reconviction rate (failure of specialist drug treatment orders, 80 per cent-plus reconviction rates)

5g. Ministry of Justice Proven Re-offending Statistics, Quarterly Bulletin, April 2009-March 2010 England and Wales (failure of Drug Intervention Programmes, DIPs, gives 55 per cent reconviction rate over one year)

5h. Home Office, Probation Statistics England & Wales, 1993 (shows reconvictions of offenders attending Day Centre Programmes, 78 per cent for those under 21, 67 per cent for 21-29-year-olds)

5i. ‘Cameron’s £1billion help for problem families a flop’, Daily Mail, 9 August 2016  (reports the 100 per cent failure of the ‘Troubled Families Project’, instigated by David Cameron following the 2011 riots, to reduce crime)

5j. ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies not having any impact, say inspectors’: HM Inspectorate of Prisons, media release, July 2017 (reports 100 per cent failure of the government’s ‘Payment by Results’ scheme, which involved recruitment of private companies to supervise offenders)

5k. ‘£3.7billion flop: Damning verdict on Cameron-era bid to cut crime’, Daily Mail, 21 June 2017 (reports 100 per cent failure of the government’s ‘Payment by Results’ scheme, which involved recruitment of private companies to supervise offenders)

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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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