Should shorter prison sentences be scrapped?

Justice Secretary says six-month terms or less are ‘ineffective’ in preventing crime

(Image credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Short prison sentences are ineffective at preventing crime and should be scrapped, the justice secretary has said.

David Gauke told delegates at the Reform Society that the UK had one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe, while rising average terms handed out by courts in England and Wales had seen the prison population double over the past thirty years to 83,000.

This has not been helped by a hardline government crime policy, which includes “increasing jail sentences for many offences in recent years, introducing mandatory imprisonment for people caught carrying a knife twice and introducing several new terror offences with 15-year sentences last week”, says The Independent.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

With Britain’s antiquated prison system at breaking point and violence and self-harm at record highs, inspectors have warned of dire conditions and failures to rehabilitate inmates.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice reveal that of the 250,000 prisoners handed a six-month sentence or less over the past five years, almost two thirds reoffended within a year.

Calling for a “national debate on about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times”, Gauke recommended a shift away from shorter custodial sentences towards more “robust” community orders for minor offences.

He also talked up the use of new technologies such as GPS tagging as a more effective means of restricting, punishing and ultimately rehabilitating offenders in the community.

He said there was a “very strong case” for abolishing prison terms of six months in all but exceptional cases, “a plan that goes further than any previous Government minister and beyond the Scottish model where there is 'presumption' against shorter sentences”, says The Daily Telegraph.

“It is a bold step for a Conservative minister to propose a measure knowing some in his party will criticise him for being 'soft' on criminals,” says BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw, “but after 13 months in the post Mr Gauke clearly feels he has the evidence to back up his case and the authority to carry it through.”

He will have been further strengthened by a YouGov poll published earlier this month that revealed 73% of Labour MPs backed the changes, while 60% of Conservatives also favoured shorter jail terms.

Unsurprisingly, however, the call to scrap six month sentences has been met with considerable opposition.

The Daily Express says the “move would see around 30,000 dangerous criminals who commit offences including theft, assault and burglary, spared jail”.

Critics of the changes have also warned of the increased strain enforcing community orders could place on an already stretched police force which has seen the total number of officers in England and Wales cut by 20,000 since 2010.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.