Report raises concerns over shorter jail terms

Wesley Johnson,Pa
Wednesday 08 June 2011 07:35 BST

The deterrent effect of short-term sentences is lost on criminals who are jailed time and time again, a report has found.

While prisoners serving their first sentence were "unanimous" that it would also be their last, those who had served several sentences already said time behind bars was "relatively easy because it was something they were used to".

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke wants to keep prison for the most serious offenders and cut the number of jail terms under 12 months as part of a "rehabilitation revolution" which would result in thousands of offenders avoiding jail.

The report, by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Governors' Association, said the experiences of prisoners and staff showed "the potential deterrent effect of serving a short prison sentence is lost" for repeat offenders.

Prison was also easier than it used to be, with better facilities and improved relationships with staff, making some offenders prefer a short time in jail over a community sentence, which they said could drag and take time to complete.

"Those serving their first prison sentence were unanimous that this was their first and last prison sentence," the report said.

"These prisoners were usually the most negative about their experience of serving a short prison sentence."

But it added: "Those who had served several prison sentences were unanimous that this prison sentence had not been a shock. Many also indicated that they would rather serve a short prison sentence than complete a community order."

Interviews with 44 prisoners in three jails holding offenders serving less than 12 months showed many of those with a custodial history felt community sentences could drag and that the length of time required to complete a community sentence meant they would prefer to serve a short prison sentence.

"This was based on the fact that it was easier to complete because they knew their release date, could get it done and out of the way," the report said.

The report, by Julie Trebilcock of Imperial College, London, also found that serving a number of short prison sentences may reduce the ability of prisoners to take responsibility and led many prisoners to "regard their return to prison as inevitable".

Boredom and the lack of access to courses led to disillusionment and demotivation, the report found.

But it added that many offenders saw community sentences as "boring and pointless" and meant they were still able to drink or take drugs.

"Several prisoners, particularly those with a history of serving several prison sentences, held particularly negative views about probation," the report said.

"Several indicated that they felt it was too easy to breach a probation order so there was almost no point in trying to meet the conditions set out by the court."

Others, many of whom had been in employment before being sentenced, said they lost everything when they were jailed and a community sentence would have enabled them to have kept their jobs and accommodation.

The report went on: "Although some prisoners indicated that they did not consider a community sentence to be sufficient punishment, others disagreed and considered the requirements of a community sentence to be far harder to meet in comparison to serving a short prison sentence.

"This was particularly the case with unpaid work in the community. Several prisoners indicated that this could be far more 'strenuous' than a short prison sentence and therefore more of a deterrent."

Dr Trebilcock said: "Many prisoners regard their return to prison as inevitable on the basis that they leave prison 'just the same', or even more disadvantaged, than they were on arrival.

"The current use of short prison sentences offers no winners: neither prisoners or staff are being equipped with the necessary support and interventions to help break the cycle of reoffending, while communities are having to cope with the frustration and disillusionment that is generated by the consistently high reoffending rates of this population."

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said: "Community sentences seek to challenge and change people so that they live crime-free lives.

"By contrast, our overcrowded prisons fail to offer lasting solutions to crime or support for victims.

"Spending all day lounging on a cell bunk, particularly for those on short sentences, is the real 'soft' option."

She went on: "The challenge is to develop community sentences that are imposed immediately, carried out intensively and help to change lives."

Blair Gibbs, head of crime and justice at the Policy Exchange think-tank, said: "This flawed campaign to discredit short sentences ignores the views of magistrates and crime victims who know that short prison terms are sometimes the only option.

"Short prison sentences may not do enough to rehabilitate or even deter serial offenders but that is not a reason to scrap them.

"They do work to prevent crime and give communities some much-needed respite and they certainly work better than most community sentences where a third are not even completed.

"Courts need the option to use short sentences and the big problem that needs fixing is the weak and ineffective community sentences that do not protect the public or stop crime."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "All sentences must punish offenders effectively as well as address the causes of their offending.

"Short sentences remain an important option for the courts, however, community sentences can also be an effective way of punishing and reforming offenders.

"Prisons need to be places of hard work, not idleness, and both prison and non-custodial sentences need to do much more to address the serious underlying causes of crime such as drug addiction and mental health.

"The consultation on our proposals for achieving this has closed and we will be publishing our plans shortly."

Theresa May, speaking on ITV's Daybreak, said: "What we are absolutely focused on is protecting the public, cutting reoffending and dealing with offenders appropriately and those who go into prison."

She added: "We are looking at what the right way forward is for Government in terms of sentencing."

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