Call to scrap short jail terms

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The Independent Online

Prison sentences of less than a year should be scrapped, a meeting of jail governors will be told today.

At its annual conference, the Prison Governors Association will be urged to back a motion condemning the rise in the jail population to record levels.

The proposal calls for ministers to launch a "radical review" of sentencing policy and scrap all jail terms shorter than 12 months.

Prisoner numbers in England and Wales passed the 84,000 mark for the first time at the start of August.

On Friday there were 84,354 in custody, despite around 2,500 inmates being released more than two weeks early from their sentences every month.

Ministers have pledged to increase prison capacity to 96,000 by 2014.

But critics say short jail sentences are ineffective at reforming criminals and should be abolished in favour of community punishments.

The motion, which is proposed by the association's national executive committee, states: "This association deplores the rise in population to a new record of over 84,000 in August and condemns this as a failure of penal policy.

"This association therefore calls on the Government to radically review sentencing policy with a view to abolishing immediate custodial sentences of less than 12 months."

Paul Tidball, Prison Governors' Association president, warned cuts and overcrowding could lead to "widespread disorder" within the prisons system.

In his speech he quoted an email from another, unnamed governor, containing a dire prediction about the potential for sustained violence.

The email stated: "The potential for prisons to blow is about as heightened as it gets in my view."

Cuts mean "basic safety, security and decency will be thrown out of the window", the mail warned.

Mr Tidball told the conference of his own fears budget cuts could have "grave" consequences.

He said: "For prisons to become less effective with reducing reoffending is tragic enough, and against the interests of our society and the taxpayer, but the potential catastrophe of widespread disorder resulting from foolhardy cuts takes the debate to another level."

Mentally ill and drug addicted prisoners should not be "wrenched away from home and then spat out from prison with much the same problems a few weeks or a few months later," he said.

He added: "Prison, the most expensive disposal option for the courts, should be reserved for those of highest risk to communities and citizens.

"This principle made sense before. It is the more compelling now we really can't afford, literally, to be locking people up unnecessarily, ineffectually, and so pointlessly.

"More on less would be a saner approach. We should in fact spend more on fewer, the few who need resources to tackle serious offending behaviour."

Other motions to be considered by the conference, which starts in Buxton, Derbyshire, today, include criticism of cuts to prison budgets.

Delegates will also discuss urging ministers to increase residential drug treatment places and calls to abandon the use of private contractors to run prisons.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw will address the conference tomorrow.

Mr Tidball told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that 60 per cent of criminals given sentences of six months or less went on to re-offend.

"It is no surprise that there is such a lack of success because we can't do much with them in six weeks, which a six-month sentence amounts to," Mr Tidball said.

"We do believe that they don't work. We are very conscious indeed, because of the cuts imposed on us, that there is less money to go around.

"The money that there is should be spent on those who need to be in prison, because it is in the public interest that the money follows the risk.

"High-risk people should get more attention in prison than we are managing to give them."