LETTER : Back to the 18th century with Howard's draconian penal code

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Sir: The Home Secretary's calculation that his draconian sentencing proposals would increase the prison population by 10,000 (rather than the 30,000 predicted by penal reformers) is based on three false assumptions.

First, the White Paper estimates that the proposals' deterrent effect "will reduce the requirement for prison places by 20 per cent." This is a breathtaking assumption that flies in the face of experience. All available research evidence indicates that increases in the severity of sentencing have no discernible deterrent effect on crime rates.

Second, it claims that the virtual abolition of early release will not affect the prison population because courts "will take full account" of these changes when sentencing, Yet this would require a large reduction in sentence lengths, which is extremely unlikely in the current harsh climate. If judges are now fiercely attacked as allegedly soft for passing, say, a four-year sentence, are they really likely to cut such a sentence to two years and run the gauntlet of even more savage criticism?

Third, the White Paper argues that sentences for offenders outside the mandatory sentence categories "will not be affected to any significant extent as an indirect result." Yet history shows that, when legislation sends an overall signal that greater or less severity is desired, this invariably has a spill-over effect into sentencing generally.

These highly optimistic assumptions have led the Government to plan new prison places for only a third of the likely increase. The result will be to overcrowd already overstretched prisons even further, ruining the prospects for a constructive penal system for decades to come.

Paul Cavadino

Chair

Penal Affairs Consortium

London SW9

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