Cut crime and pressure on prisons with more community sentences say peers
Allowing more criminals to serve sentences out of jail would help cut crime and ease pressure on prisons, according to a Lords committee.
As prisons reach “crisis point” amid overcrowding, the group of peers called on the Government to make better use of community sentences after the number handed down over the last decade “dropped dramatically”.
In a report published on Thursday, the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee set out a series of proposals as it warned that while time behind bars was sometimes necessary, short jail sentences were “providing a university education in crime”.
Committee chairwoman Baroness Hamwee said: “Prisons are at crisis point. Places are simply not available. Yet it is well-known that a short time in custody too often schools someone in how to be a ‘better’ criminal. The Government acknowledges all this.
“If the crisis is regarded as an opportunity to focus on how to make the best use of community orders, their potential can be realised, to the benefit of individual offenders and of the community.
“The use of community sentences has dropped dramatically over the last 10 years. Used well, and with the necessary investment in the intensive treatment that is often needed, they can turn people’s lives around.
“We acknowledge the challenges the Government faces in the prison service, and welcome the attention on community sentences. Our report shows the contribution that these sentences can make, and that they are valuable in themselves — and that they need commitment from Government for their full potential to be realised.”
The Lords committee said prisons were at a “critical point”, at 99% of their capacity with many in an “extremely poor condition”.
They argue community sentences can “guide offenders away from crime and at the same time meet public safety needs”, citing “effective” programmes for alcoholics, drug addicts and support for mental health problems.
Earlier this month, the Justice Secretary said he would consider tougher community sentences amid concerns proposed reforms will result in offenders escaping punishment.
Alex Chalk offered assurances to MPs, including those on the Tory benches, about moves to address prison overcrowding by allowing for most prison sentences of under 12 months to be suspended – and for an increased use of electronic tags.
The measures include expanding the so-called, home detention curfew scheme to make some offenders sentenced to more than four years eligible for release on a tag up to six months before their scheduled release date.
Former home secretary Suella Braverman previously said she had “serious concerns” about the Sentencing Bill, claiming thousands of criminals would avoid spending time in jail as a result and that many were likely to re-offend.
As she proposed amendments to the legislation, which is currently going through Parliament, she insisted prison “works” and is a deterrent, adding: “Victims deserve justice and criminals must not be let off the hook”.
The Lords report said crime “can be reduced through rigorous sentences served in the community” and “with the right investment, intensive community sentences can succeed where short prison sentences fail” as well as “ease pressure on prison places”.
Community sentences currently “fall way short of their potential” and their use has “more than halved over recent years” but prisons are “in effect completely full” and the situation is “getting worse”.
An effective community order can help “turn round the life of an offender”, providing both treatment and punishment, but the support needed is “not widely enough provided, or indeed available”, the report said as it called for more funding for rehabilitation programmes.
“There is an untapped potential for keeping offenders out of prison and supporting them to avoid reoffending”, it said but also acknowledged the success of community sentences was partially reliant on the Probation Service being “fully functional”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We know robust community punishment is an effective alternative to short prison terms and have already announced reforms to increase the use of suspended sentences to stop the merry-go-round of reoffending.
“We are doubling the number of GPS tags available to courts, investing in services to get offenders off drugs and giving the Probation Service a £155 million a year boost that has already helped us recruit thousands more trainee probation officers to keep the public safe.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub