Prison governors: short sentences do not work

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The backlash against short-term prison sentences intensified today after the representative bodies of both prison governors and probation officers condemned them as expensive and ineffective.

Their criticism comes two weeks after the outgoing head of the prison service, Phil Wheatley, told The Independent that short-term sentences do nothing to rehabilitate offenders.

Now the Prison Governors' Association and the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) have called for a greater use of community punishments, which are cheaper and are shown better to reduce reoffending than short-term sentences.

Prisoners serving less than six months make up about 10 per cent of the prison population, meaning there are about 8,500 on any given day. Last year 55,333 people were jailed for six months or less at a cost of about £350m to the Ministry of Justice.

Such short sentences allow little time for rehabilitation. Research shows that at least 74 per cent are reconvicted within two years of release, whereas the same is true of only 34 per cent of those given community punishments.

Eoin McLennan-Murray, the president of the Prison Governors' Association, said the tendency to give criminals short-term sentences rather than community punishment stemmed from Britain's "love affair with custody", which the judiciary should reverse.

"With prison populations rising it seems madness to me that we continue to see an increase in short-term sentences, especially given that community punishments have better success in cutting reoffending and are cheaper. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but we are throwing money away," he said.

"The psyche of the courts and the public is that if we give people community punishments we are somehow being soft on criminals and they are being let off. But the reality is that community punishments are better at cutting reoffending, so in the long term we are making these people less dangerous and that is better for society."

Mr McLennan-Murray's suggestion that courts tend to favour custodial sentences is supported by the Napo report, which highlighted 170 cases during the first few months of 2010 where offenders had been given short jail terms by the courts, despite a pre-sentence report recommending a non-custodial option.

Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of Napo, said: "Currently 55,000 people receive custodial sentences of six months or less, where no rehabilitation is possible and there are extremely high reoffending rates. This costs the taxpayer at least £350m a year.

"As an alternative, the majority of these individuals could be supervised in the community on intensive programmes costing between £50m and £60m a year. Not only would this option be cheaper, but the reconviction rates would be much lower."

The Howard League for Penal Reform said it supported the principle of fewer short-term sentences, which it described as a "costly and wasteful response to complex human problems". Its director Frances Crook said: "Upon arrival prisoners on short sentences are handed their induction papers along with their release forms. Nothing constructive can happen when a prisoner lies on a squalid bunk bed for three weeks. In contrast, community sentences force people to make amends for their wrongdoing."

Earlier this month Mr Wheatley, who has since left his post as director general of the National Offender Management Service, said: "If you are using imprisonment to try to change the way someone thinks then you have got to allow time to allow someone to change. People who get short-term sentences – and many of them are doing relatively low-level crime like theft and shoplifting – often do not have much motivation to give it up. The real question is: are we making them better? We are not really making a difference to the way they reoffend. Those who do community sentences do better than predicted. Short-term prisoners do worse than predicted."