YSS has pledged its support of a new campaign from the Revolving Doors Agency to reduce the use of short prison sentences.

YSS is a charity that supports some of the most marginalised people in society, including children and young people who are acting as carers, families in crisis and people coming out of prison. The criminal justice services YSS delivers are wide-ranging and include working to identify and support veterans, mentoring 16-24 year olds who are involved, or at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system, through the gate services providing transport on the day of release and intense support in the community. Last month YSS CEO Lorraine Preece gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee regarding its enquiry into Transforming Rehabilitation, and highlighted that too many people are being given short prison sentences which can often exacerbate the problems they are facing.

The campaign, called short-sighted, is based both on public opinion and the evidence base. It outlines that currently 30,000 people each year go to prison on sentences of less than six months, which represents half of all people sent to prison to serve a sentence. The majority of people serving sentences of less than six months are in prison for non-violent offences. Common offences that receive a short time in custody are theft and drug offences, linked to underlying problems such as poverty, addiction, homelessness and poor mental health, and the most common offence for which people are sentenced to prison is theft. The campaign outlines that the public strongly oppose the use of prison for petty crime, with a new poll commissioned by Revolving Doors finding that:

  • 80% of the public think that theft of daily essentials such as food, sanitary products and nappies does not warrant a prison sentence. This was true for voters across all the major parties.
  • 74% of the public think people with drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes instead of prison.
  • A majority of voters said they were likely to vote for an MP candidate that supported reducing prison populations and using the savings to invest in drug treatment and mental health programmes (only 16% said they were unlikely to do so). Each of the major parties had more people likely to support this policy than unlikely to do so.

Revolving Doors states that these poll results are important findings given that at least a quarter of people entering prison on short sentences are there for theft. It is also clear that each of the major parties would have the support of their voters for a policy of prison population reduction, and of ensuring people are not sentenced to prison for offences such as theft where possible.

The campaign also outlines that short prison sentences are proven to be less effective at reducing reoffending than community sentences, and that smarter ways of tackling persistent, petty crime can be found. Short prison sentences are short-sighted because they disrupt family ties, housing, employment and treatment programmes for example, but they do not provide any meaningful rehabilitation.

These sentences contribute to prison ‘churn’ and volatility. At the same time, the use of community sentences, which can include requirements such as mental health treatment, alcohol misuse treatment and drug misuse treatment, has declined – substantially and rapidly.

To resolve the issues highlighted in the campaign, Revolving Doors suggests that the government should introduce a presumption against the use of short custodial sentences of less than six months. This would allow such a sentence only when no other appropriate disposal is available. Where short prison sentences are imposed, courts would have to say why.

This approach does not remove the court’s discretion; it is a presumption not a ban. Therefore, under these proposals offences that are serious and/or risk harm, such as domestic violence, can be dealt with appropriately by the courts.

At the same time there is a need to strengthen community sentences so that they command public confidence and are able to deal effectively with some of the underlying causes of persistent, petty offending, including drug or alcohol misuse and mental health. However, there is no value in continuing with the failed policy of short sentences while we wait. Clear direction from government on the need to reduce inappropriate short sentences should be the welcome catalyst for action.

As part of the short-sighted campaign, Revolving Doors states it wants to see the least harmful and least serious theft or drug offences dealt with differently. The least serious quarter of these cases represents 2,250 people or four people per parliamentary constituency. It is surely possible that there are four people in each constituency who could be safely given a community sentence rather than an ineffective short prison sentence. To do otherwise is short-sighted.

To find out more and to see how you can support the campaign visit the Revolving Doors website here.

To find out more about YSS and the services it delivers, please go to yss.org.uk or call 01905 730780.