Texas-style justice: a sticking-plaster fix for UK prisons?

Sceptics say sentencing reform kicks the can down the road

A prison officer behind a gate
The government wants to scrap prison sentences of less than a year for most offenders to end the 'cycle of criminality'
(Image credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Prisons will release some "less serious offenders" on probation early to relieve overcrowding in jails in England and Wales, the justice secretary has announced.

Writing for The Telegraph, Alex Chalk said the UK could learn from Texas, which has reduced sentencing verdicts for non-violent offenders and promoted probation and drug rehabilitation as alternatives to jail time.

'Like putting a plaster on a deep wound'

After figures published last month revealed that almost all prisons across England and Wales are either full or close to full capacity, Chalk said that scrapping prison sentences of less than a year for most offenders would end the "cycle of criminality" caused by a "merry-go-round of short sentences".

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He said a "short stretch of a few months inside" isn't enough time to rehabilitate criminals, but is "more than enough to dislocate them from family, work and home connections" that keep them from crime. "Too often", he added, "offenders routinely turn back to crime as soon as they walk out of the prison gates".

Damian Hinds, the Prisons and Probation Minister, said short prison sentences "generally don't work". Also writing for The Telegraph, he said that "like putting a plaster on a deep wound", short jail terms "might hide the problem temporarily", but they "don't heal it".

Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, welcomed the move. She said it has "long been recognised" that short sentences "do more harm than good" and that "community orders are more effective at reducing reoffending".

Speaking to the Financial Times, she said that the prison system was "just a matter of weeks away from running out of space and becoming dangerously overcrowded" so an increasing use of non-custodial sentences was a "good thing".

The "impulse" to "punish wrongdoers with ever-tougher sanctions" has led to jails overfilling in the first place, agreed Martha Gill in The Observer, and "that has meant that convicted criminals are (temporarily) on the loose".

'Cowboy approach'

"Bespoke community programmes may sound good", wrote Philip Johnston for The Telegraph, but they are "expensive" and "if they don't work, then the criminals who would otherwise be in jail will continue offending, pushing up the crime rate once more."

All Clark's policies are likely to do is "create a little more space in the prison system", said David Shipley, who served time in HMP Wandsworth for fraud, "perhaps buying another six or 12 months of capacity before the system reaches this point again".

Writing in The Spectator, he said "the courts will continue to struggle, and an already dangerously understaffed probation service will have to cope with a massive increase in work", raising the risk of "dangerous supervision failures".

The prison crisis is just one symptom of wider problems across the legal system, agreed Richard Miller, the Law Society's head of justice. Speaking to the Law Society Gazette, he said "crumbling courts and a shortage of judges and lawyers all reflect the urgent need to fund justice".

Retail groups have raised concerns about the message the new policy sends to shoplifters. Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the shopworkers union Usdaw, told the Daily Express that the announcement could give the "impression that shoplifting has effectively been decriminalised".

Opposition parties have also raised doubts. Labour told The Mirror that "the only thing Texan about this government is that they are running the country like cowboys" and the Lib Dems warned that "without a proper solution prisons will continue to struggle in this crisis".

Therefore, "the best Chalk can hope for", said Shipley, "is that the next crisis or scandal takes place after the election", when "it's likely to be someone else's problem".

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