Yesterday’s Observer rightly called for sentencing reform in order to solve the deepening crisis in the prisons in England and Wales. But as so often their proposals do not go nearly far enough. Their solution is to reduce the number of people serving short sentences for minor crimes. Of course that’s a good idea but at the end of last month fewer than 7,000 out of the 85,000 people in prison were serving sentences of less than a year. Take the lot out tomorrow and we’d still be left with a prison population well in excess of the system’s 75,000 capacity.
It’s true that over half of those admitted to prison are serving short sentences so cutting numbers would take the strain off local prisons as well as sparing some of the 50,000 petty offenders a year the indignities of doing time in them. Whether the controversial probation reforms have made it more likely that such offenders can be effectively supervised in the community instead seems increasingly open to doubt.
But the real requirement for a manageable prison population are reductions in the lengths of sentences being imposed. Since 2010, the average length of prison sentences went up from 16.2 months to 19 months. Jail terms have got longer not only for violent and sexual crimes but for theft and drug offences too. It is prisoners facing longer terms- particularly but not exclusively those with indeterminate sentences- who are bearing the adverse consequences of the reckless staff reductions in prisons.
So yes to sentencing reform but it needs to focus not simply on bringing about fewer short sentences but, in a sense on producing more of them - but at the expense of the longer terms that are increasingly being imposed by courts.