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Scrapping short jail sentences ‘not right way forward’, says Justice Secretary

Robert Buckland’s comments depart from the plans of his predecessor David Gauke, who in the last year tried to end the use of short prison terms.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland (David Mirzoeff/PA)
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland (David Mirzoeff/PA)

By Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent

Abolishing short jail sentences is not the answer to stopping criminals from reoffending, the Justice Secretary has said.

Robert Buckland told MPs that better alternatives to short periods behind bars, like community orders, were more likely to be successful but he did not want to scrap the option of custody.

His comments depart from the plans of his predecessor David Gauke, who in the last year tried to end the use of short prison terms over fears they make people more likely to reoffend.

Mr Buckland made the comments on Wednesday when he appeared before the Commons Justice Committee for the first time in his role as Lord Chancellor.

He said rates of reoffending were lower for those serving longer jail terms than shorter ones.

Asked if his position was “long sentences can be useful, short sentences, broadly, are not”, he replied: “That is right.

“Therefore the answer to short sentences in a nutshell is to improve the range of choice that judges have of robust community options.”

When it was suggested scrapping six-month sentences would significantly reduce the reoffending rate, he said: “With respect, I do not believe that abolition is the right way forward.

“Why do I say that, because my own experience as a recorder teaches me that there are times, however reluctantly, that ultimate option should be available to judges and magistrates.

“So for example, repeat offenders who are failing to comply with community orders ultimately will need the sanction of custody.

“It’s a sad fact but it’s a true fact I think.

“Therefore removing that option would not be appropriate.”

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Robert Buckland’s comments depart from the plans of his predecessor David Gauke (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

He said he and Mr Gauke shared the view that the “evidence points to the ineffectiveness”, adding instead he thought there should be “better alternatives to ineffective short jail sentences”.

“Custody should be a last resort in current legislation when community order is not appropriate,” he said.

He assured committee members that any final decision would be based on evidence and “work on short-term sentences is not going to be put away in a box and forgotten”.

Probation inspectors previously warned that 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.

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The Justice Secretary also commented on the Supreme Court’s finding that the prorogation of Parliament by the Government had been unlawful (Yui Mok/PA)

In the last year, 38,617 offenders were released following sentences of less than 12 months and 64.1% of adults released from custodial terms of less than 12 months reoffended within a year.

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

While the latest Ministry of Justice figures showed more than half of children reoffended on release after serving longer than a year behind bars.

Charlotte Pickles, director of the think tank Reform, said: “The Government should be consulting on the abolition of largely ineffective short sentences, not trying to spin their merits.”

Mr Buckland also talked of his plans to change the early release of violent and sexual offenders from the halfway point through a sentence to two thirds.

But he said this would now only apply to those jailed for seven years or more, rather than from four years as originally indicated.

During the session, Mr Buckland also reiterated his position on defending the judiciary when their decisions are criticised, referring to comments made after the Supreme Court found the prorogation of Parliament by the Government was unlawful.

He said: “One can disagree but one shouldn’t make it personal or imply political motive to the independent judiciary, that would inappropriate.

“The decision was made, we respect that decision and I was quick in defending the judiciary’s position when certain attacks were made.”

He also dismissed suggestions that the way senior judiciary members are appointed should be reviewed in the wake of the ruling, adding: “I think the day that we end up with a US-style confirmation hearing for senior members of the judiciary will be a very black day for our constitution.

“I think that sort of decision would be erroneous and based on an assumption that we were creating a constitutional court in the United Kingdom.

“That is something I do not believe in.

“The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal in our land but it is a court of final appeal to deal with whatever question is asked of it.

“Sometimes that question may have constitutional ramifications, very often it doesn’t.

“In this rather febrile time of constitutional turmoil I think we have other fish to fry when it comes to political issues.

“Constitutional matters should be determined calmly and coolly at length, perhaps at a quieter time when we can all reflect very much on what it is that we want our constitutional future to be.”

PA

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