Don’t scrap short jail terms – it’ll make crime worse, warns top judge

Daily Mail - - Brexit In Crisis - By Steve Doughty So­cial Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent

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.’

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