Short custodial sentences – are they effective?

Written 15th December 2021 by David Philpott

Every day in Magistrates’ Courts up and down the country people are being sent to prison for short sentences measured in terms of weeks or months. Whilst, presumably, all of us would accept that there are very many occasions when a custodial sentence must be imposed more and more questions are being asked about whether depriving people of their liberty for a limited period achieves anything. In a recent Guardian article John Bache, the former chair of the Magistrates Association, referred to short custodial sentences as being handed out by default. He highlighted the fact that many of the people committing multiple offences have underlying problems such as mental health difficulties or drugs and alcohol problems and said “I don’t see that short prison sentences actually achieve a great deal.”

Commission of further offences

Obviously short sentences do mean that offenders are punished by being locked away for a period of time but it is clear that they do little to prevent further offending in the future. There is hardly any provision in prisons to address the sorts of problems that people serving these sentences often have. Once people are released they are made subject to periods of licence and supervision by the probation service for the next 12 months. However, it remains the case that nearly two thirds of people sentenced to a prison sentence of less than a year go on to commit another offence within twelve months of being released.

The Sentencing Council state that there are a number of purposes that the courts must have in mind when they come to sentence someone. These are punishment, the reduction of crime, reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public and making offenders give something back. Perhaps it is time for there to be a far greater emphasis upon reform and community based sentences focusing upon rehabilitation for those convicted of less serious matters. The human costs of crime are obvious in terms of the impact upon the victims and others. The most recent figures from the House of Commons library spell out the financial costs of keeping people in prison as being on average £28,974 per prisoner in terms of direct costs with that figure rising to £42,670 for the overall expenditure.

Custodial sentences 

There remains something of an obsession with prison in this country. There are nearly 80,000 people in prison in England and Wales. A comparison of the percentage of people per 100,000 of the population in prison across Europe show that the figures here exceed those in many countries including France, Germany, Spain and Italy.  The current projections are for the prison population to rise to nearly 99,000 by 2026. Conditions in prisons are often very poor with Andrew Neilson, the Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, describing a recent report on Chelmsford prison as being “one of the worst prison inspection reports we have seen in recent years.” He went on to say that “the only answer is to reduce the number of people held behind bars and take bold action to reshape a prison system which is failing prisoners, staff and the country at large.”

There will always be occasions when there really is no alternative to sending someone to prison. However, for the sake of everyone perhaps it is time for there to be a real focus upon effective community based alternatives to prison particularly for those people coming before the courts for sorts of offences that might have led to a short prison sentence being imposed.

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David Philpott

David Philpott



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