Sunday, March 20, 2011

a league apart

The debate on prison sentences continues (as it should) and I have little yet to add to my post in December 2010 but it is hard not to be tempted into a reaction to the illogic of some of the conclusions of the response by the Howard League for Penal Reform to the government’s green paper on sentencing.

The HLPR firmly believes they are the only people who can see the disadvantages of prison and the contingent risks it brings to its inmates, particularly those who are vulnerable, susceptible to bad influence, or having mental health issues. They are not. Unfortunately they are also not alone in thinking that offenders are given prison sentences on some kind of whim, for want of sentencers being able to think of a better alternative, but the HLPR should know better. They are not, as they seem to believe, the onIy ones who have thought it all through many times.

For example, their dogmatic position that 'women’s prisons should be closed' is unjustified; of the 3,000 female prisoners the vast majority have committed violent, sexual, or other very serious offences. The HLPR’s statistic that over 40% of those imprisoned in 2008 were for theft and handling offences doesn’t seem to reconcile with the government’s figures on the offences of those currently inside, only 13% for theft/handling. Sentencers of course don’t have the aim of increasing the female (or male) prison population but rehabilitation is not the only purpose of sentencing; the HLPR must be aware that other aims are protection of the public, punishment, reparation, and reduction in crime or deterrence (a word that is mentioned only once in their document and yet is a key factor in custodial sentences). And a prison sentence is certainly a deterrent.

The HLPR knows that sentencers comply with government guidelines and their assertion that 'magistrates over-use custody' is nonsense. Unless specifically prescribed for an offence by the guidelines, and often even if it is, custody is a sentence of last resort and every effort is made, with the help of the probation service, to find an alternative in the shape of a community order or suspended prison sentence or a curfew. But, strangely, the HLPR doesn’t like curfews either, describing them as too punitive. Really ? They keep the offender in their home for up to 12 hours per day (usually at night time and usually less) for a few weeks, giving him immense freedom to live and to work. Is that so punitive ? Custody is avoided and the cost to the taxpayer is comparatively tiny.

HLPR wants to take power of custody away from magistrates altogether, proposing that they have to remand an offender to crown court for a custodial sentence; a suggestion that is so absurd it cannot be taken seriously. Apart from the bottleneck this would create in crown courts, pushing up the already long wait for trials, the huge increase in cost to the country, and the risk that the offender will not turn up at court for sentencing, such a process would almost certainly result in more custodial sentences and longer ones. Magistrates can give only up to 6 months custody, and, after a guilty plea, an offender receiving the maximum sentence will serve just 2 months in prison (likely to be even lower shortly.)

Contrary to the HLPR view, the number of prisoners serving short sentences of less than 6 months is falling, down from 5,500 in March 2010 to 4,500 in December 2010. Their report says that 'sentencers are too preoccupied with prison' and warns of 'an ever-ballooning prison population' and yet it has reduced over the last year.

Amidst a number of other misguided ideas and notions, there is much good sense in the HLPR’s detailed paper and their view that 'community sentences must be made more immediate, more efficient and more intensive' is undoubtedly right. But those sentences have many flaws and risks too. It is not proven that they produce lower reoffending rates than custody, as the propensity of the offender to reoffend has to be taken into account, and that is very complex. The funding for them is likely to be reduced and how well the Probation Service will cope with an increasing number of clients and over-stretched resources is very uncertain. Breaches will increase and custody must be available as an option to deal with them, otherwise community sentences will fall further into disrepute. A recent press article warns of just such a fall.

The more a prison sentence can be avoided the better but the aims of sentencing, particularly protection of the public, must be paramount. Reoffending can only be prevented whilst the offender is in custody; at all other times the reoffending can only be discouraged and whatever intervention helps to achieve that is one that must be considered; the earlier it takes place in the offender's criminal life the more likely it is to succeed. On the question of how successful sentences in the community are the jury is still out and daft proposals by organisations who are bending too far backwards to achieve their own, sometimes irrational, agenda are not helpful.



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