Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Justice row over plan to end short jail terms

A row was brewing last night over controversial justice plans to abolish short prison sentences in favour of community orders.

Justice Minister David Ford has proposed abolishing prison terms lasting three months or less and replacing them with tougher community penalties.

The plan means that judges would be unable to jail offenders for less than three months unless they were able to provide a strong enough reason as to why a prison sentence should be imposed instead of a community alternative.

Around 300 offenders are estimated to be serving prison terms of less than three months for crimes that include assaults, sex offences and burglaries.

Mr Ford believes that for these criminals, unpaid community work would be more challenging than a short prison sentence and would help change their offending behaviour.

It would also help to alleviate the pressure on an already overburdened Prison Service.

However, the proposal, which is to go out to consultation, has been slammed by members of Stormont's justice committee as a soft option. DUP committee member Jim Wells said prison is not just about rehabilitation but is also about punishment "and the balance cannot be tilted too far in one direction".

"We must also ensure that financial targets in our prisons are not allowed to dictate our sentencing policy," he said.

Mr Wells said he believes that in pursuing this "softer approach" the Justice Minister "risks giving free rein to those who engage in persistent anti-social behaviour and low-level crime".

"It isn't likely that petty criminals will be deterred by the threat of a community service order. If, however, they are confronted with the prospect of a month or three in prison, they may be deterred from such behaviour," he said.

Mr Wells added: "It is important that the judiciary have the option of handing down a three month or less sentence available to them. The DUP wants to work with David Ford to deliver a robust justice system which protects the community and punishes criminals. The minister and his officials need to think again on this significant change."

The Justice Department said that it will await the views of the justice committee and then consider the way forward.

Last year the Scottish government banned short prison sentences in favour of community-based sentences. The move was described as "incredibly dangerous" by politicians.

The issue is under consideration in England and Wales.

JUDGES BEST PLACED TO DECIDE ON PUNISHMENT

In Northern Ireland courts, judges often view prison terms as a last resort, preferring in many cases to suspend sentences to give the offender another chance

For example, earlier this week a police officer who kicked a student in the head as he lay unconscious received a suspended sentence. So usually when a sentence is imposed, even if it is for two or three months, the judge clearly believes it is necessary.

There is a lot of merit in community-based sentences for both punishment and rehabilitation. These sentences can help to prevent first-time offenders becoming revolving-door prisoners who spend most of their lives in and out of jail.

David Ford believes unpaid community work is more challenging than a short prison sentence and could help change offending patterns.

While there is much merit in community service, it should be left up to the court judge to determine if a prison or community sentence should be imposed, not the politicians.

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