Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Through the gate to a short sharp shock

Almost everyone who works in criminal justice thinks it daft that short term prisoners get almost no support when released. But many are equally concerned that introducing a breachable requirement to comply with supervision could lead to a swift return inside for many offenders.
That concern was not allayed by Justice Minister Damien Green who chose to emphasise in a speech today that  the government  are  “tackling stubbornly high reoffending rates with proposed new powers for magistrates to impose a ‘short sharp’ two week return to custody for any offender who breaches their new supervision period, following a sentence of less than 12 months in prison.”
He was jumping the gun in that the provisions in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill are still  before Parliament and are not uncontroversial . But his emphasis on the stick of custodial remedies rather than the carrot of through the gate mentoring was unnecessarily punitive and also foolish.

The last government called off the implementation of the similar Custody Plus scheme when they realised the additional prison places which would be needed. Serious questions remain about the affordability of this governments plan. There are the costs of supervising prisoners on release and of imprisoning those who fail to comply. But magistrates are likely to find the clang of the prison gate plus some help on release a highly attractive proposition. The number of short term sentences they impose could easily increase at the expense of community penalties the future supervision of which is mired in uncertainty. Green would have been better advised to emphasise that once breachable supervision is added to a short term prison sentence, its punitive weight is much increased. Courts should be looking to reduce the lengths of the custodial component of these short sentences to reflect the new threat of re-imprisonment which they contain.

Green’s plans for Magistrates to scrutinise police cautions also look to be ill judged. According to ACPO, a full review of how police forces use cautions has been carried out involving the police, the Ministry of the Justice, the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and victims’ organisations. “The review has found that in the vast majority of cases officers are using the guidance available to them, applying cautions appropriately and proportionately and this process is being properly supervised and managed.”  Is a layer of scrutiny therefore needed? Even if it is , should the judicial branch be getting involved in what are administrative decisions by the police? Not without a good deal more thought than has apparently so far been given.

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