Don’t scrap short jail terms – it’ll make crime worse, warns top judge
THE country’s most senior judge warned yesterday that abolishing short jail sentences will worsen crime rates.
Lord Burnett said government plans to end prison terms of fewer than six months would leave the courts with no effective penalties to deal with repeat offenders.
He said the change would be exploited by serial shoplifters as well as those who defy the courts and fail to carry out judicial orders.
In a rebuke to Justice Secretary David Gauke, he said judges had no faith in the community punishments that ministers say should replace short jail terms.
The broadside from the Lord Chief Justice, who leads the judiciary in England and Wales, is likely to deter ministers from any rapid legislation.
Mr Gauke announced his intention to end short sentences in February, arguing they do nothing to reform offenders. He also said they destabilised the lives of criminals, adding: ‘For [a] society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working.’
Lord Burnett expressed his doubts in an appearance before members of the Lord constitutional committee. He said he had discussed the plans with Mr Gauke, adding: ‘My understanding is that it is fully accepted that there have to be exceptions to the general rule.
‘Each of us might have our own list of those exceptions, but one or two of them that are perhaps obvious are the type of offence like taking contraband into prison. If everybody knows that they can take it in once and not get a custodial sentence, I rather suspect the problem would get worse rather than better.’
He added: ‘There is a real problem with multiple offenders – so this is the shoplifter who has done it 24 times and nothing has worked, and offences against justice are other examples.’
Offences against justice include contempt of court, perjury, bribing witnesses and failing to carry out probation or community orders.
Contempt of court, for example, can be punished with a short jail term, and short prison sentences are used to deal with criminals who fail to carry out community punishments.
Among crimes for which six-month sentences are recommended by the Sentencing Council – the statutory body that recommends punishment levels – are being caught carrying a knife for a second time, or threatening someone with a weapon. Lord Burnett also said there was a problem with Mr Gauke’s call for some prison terms to be replaced by ‘robust community orders’.
The Lord Chief Justice said: ‘The problem is that sentencers lost a lot of faith in non-custodial sentences because of the failure for them to be monitored properly.
‘There was a phenomenon of multiple breaches of community orders which were simply not being reported back to the courts so faith was lost in quite a lot of what was going on.’
On Tuesday, MPs on the justice committee called for all prison sentences of less than a year to be abolished. However, Mr Gauke yesterday showed signs of backtracking on his own policy when questioned by MPs on the Commons justice committee.
He said: ‘No decisions as yet have been made, but I do worry about the impact short sentences can have. This is a complex matter.
‘It is important not to think that addressing the issue of short sentences is a huge money- saving opportunity.
‘In the long term it might be if it helps reduce reoffending but I completely agree that reducing short sentences needs to be viewed in the context of improving the alternatives. I don’t think one can just, overnight, get rid of short sentences and hope for the best.’