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How has the debate on prison sentencing changed over the years?

While critics claim longer sentences do not work, the prison population is said to have climbed under Labour and Tory governments.

The prison population is said to have climbed under Labour and Conservative governments (Anthony Devlin/PA)
The prison population is said to have climbed under Labour and Conservative governments (Anthony Devlin/PA)

By Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent

Politicians have circled around the debate of prison sentences for years – particularly in the run-up to an election – and the stance, as well as public opinion, keeps changing.

– What have politicians pledged over the years?

The prison population is said to have climbed under Labour and Conservative governments in the wake of laws which led to more people being jailed for longer.

According to political commentators, the trend of Parliament telling judges to hand out longer jail sentence began under John Major, continued under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as well as during David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition.

The so-called populist surge is thought to have begun when Michael Howard was a Conservative home secretary and made his 1995 “prison works” speech – sending magistrates and judges the message to give heavier custodial sentences in a “three strikes and you’re out”-style regime.

Tony Blair is particularly said to have “eye-catching” anti-crime announcements, aided by his home secretary Jack Straw.

Chris Grayling also sought to cut back on early release during his time as justice secretary.

– Do longer sentences work?

Critics say no, calling for better rehabilitation plans and chances for offenders to turn their lives around.

In the last year ex-justice secretary David Gauke tried to abolish short jail sentences because of this very theory in the belief it makes people more likely to re-offend.

In May, HM Inspectorate of Probation warned thousands of criminals sentenced to short prison terms were locked in a “merry-go-round” that leaves the public at risk and costs billions of pounds a year.

In the year to September, 38,617 offenders were released following sentences of less than 12 months.

It cited figures showing that 64.1% of adults released from custodial terms of less than 12 months re-offended within a year.

This compared with 28.5% of those who served sentences of a year or more.

In June, the Prison Reform Trust said there were a “shameful” number of people sent to prison in England and Wales – suggesting there were more behind bars in the country than anywhere else in western Europe.

More than two-and-a-half times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in 2018 than in 2006, despite levels of serious crime being “substantially” lower, according to the charity.

In July, Mr Gauke said he hoped the next prime minister would pursue his ambition to axe sentences of less than six months and instead take a “smart, not soft” approach to justice, saying longer sentences “will always be right for those who commit the most serious crimes”.

But he insisted the public “expect the justice system to focus on rehabilitation” to reduce the risk of re-offending.

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(PA Graphics)

Last week Ministry of Justice figures showed more than half of children re-offended on release after serving longer than a year behind bars.

The chief inspector of prisons raised the statistics as he expressed concerns over young offender institutions failing to deter child criminals from breaking the law again when on release.

Prisons policy expert at Manchester Metropolitan University Kevin Wong told PA the debate about the length of sentences was “missing the point”.

Mr Wong, a Reader in community justice and the associate director of the university’s police evaluation and research unit, said: “Greater consideration should be given to using community sentences as an alternative to prison.

“Research that myself and colleagues undertook for the Ministry of Justice a few years ago found that intensive community orders were more cost-effective than short custodial sentences.”

 – What do the public think about sentences?

Earlier this month, the Sentencing Council’s poll suggested 70% of 2,000 people questioned felt sentences are too lenient – a view which was more prevalent among adults over the age of 55, the results said.

But further results suggested when given examples of longer sentences, some respondents felt they were too tough, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Meanwhile, the most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales suggested in 2017/18 that 53% of people questioned said they thought the criminal justice system as a whole was effective and 69% said they thought it was fair, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics cited by the Sentencing Council.

PA

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