In his State Opening of Parliament speech on 7 November 2023, King Charles III reaffirmed his government’s commitment to a new Sentencing Bill which for the first time aims to legislate for the presumption that prison sentences of less than 12 months should generally be suspended.
Other proposals in the Bill include ensuring that those who commit certain types of murder will be mandated to whole life sentences without the possibility of review by the Parole Board, while convicted rapists will serve every day of their sentence and not less.
The proposals largely had the effect of showing the government to be tough on crime and criminals. However, the measures that include a presumption that people sentenced to less than a year in prison will serve their sentence in the community and an extension to the early release scheme for lower risk prisoners are clearly reactions to the chronic over-crowding of the prison estate and the evidence that short-term prison sentences do not work.
The problem with short-term prison sentences
A short-term prison sentence is defined as 12 months’ imprisonment or less. These sentences can be problematic in that they may be less effective than alternatives in reducing offending and aiding rehabilitation. According to the government’s briefing notes, short-term prison sentences “may even trap an offender in a revolving door of reoffending, cutting them off from work, housing, and family and further criminalising them with each spell inside.”
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) said in a press release that this new proposal is backed by the data. Statistics show that more than 50% of offenders serving up to 12 months in prison go on to commit another crime while the figure rises to 58% for offenders serving six months or less. This is compared with the overall offending rate of just 25%.
Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk said: “We must think again about how we make the best use of our prisons and ensure there are always enough places to lock up dangerous criminals. These reforms must include giving the lowest risk offenders the greatest chance to turn their lives around.
The problem has been confounded in more recent times owing to the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, with delays affecting criminal courts across the country, resulting in long wait times for those remanded in custody awaiting trial and an ever-growing backlog of cases.
The MOJ estimates that there were 87,744 in prison as at 17 November 2023, up from 82,691 just 12 months ago. The useable operating capacity for prisons is 88,894 meaning there are just 1,150 free prison spaces currently in England and Wales.
How will alternatives to short-term prison sentences help?
In contrast to short-term prisoners, reoffending rates for those on a suspended sentence with requirements (23%), without requirements (38%), and those given a community order (34%) are much lower.
The government is also planning to double the number of GPS tags available to the courts, which would assist in managing offenders’ rehabilitation within the community. Alternative punishments for offenders of less serious crimes will be able to “repay their debt to society by cleaning up neighbourhoods and scrubbing graffiti off walls”. It will also give offenders drug rehab facilities, mental healthcare and other avenues of support that will help to address the root causes of their offending.
Sentencing decisions will continue to be taken case by case
The Lord Chancellor was quick to note that each decision will be taken on its own merits and provided assurances to society that those who have been convicted of dangerous crimes, such as domestic violence and stalking, will not always be afforded a suspended sentence under the new law.
The Lord Chancellor said: “We want domestic abuse victims to know this government is on their side, so we will do everything possible to protect them from those who cause harm, or threaten to do so.
“That’s why we are ensuring that judges retain full discretion to hand down prison sentences to domestic abusers―to give victims the confidence to rebuild their lives knowing their tormentors are safely behind bars.”
It remains to be seen how effective the new Sentencing law will be. However, any positive impact it can have on reducing the prison population will be welcomed by the criminal justice profession.
Our expert solicitors have successfully represented defendants in a huge number of cases to achieve sentences in the community to assist with rehabilitation. If you require advice in relation to an allegation or charge you are facing, please contact us on 0203 440 8000 to speak with one of our specialist team.
Disclaimer: The information on the TV Edwards website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication.