Prison is already largely reserved for the most serious and persistent offenders, with magistrates and judges using prison as a last resort. So the idea that the government should ban them from sending offenders to jail for theft and fraud is completely wrong.
Property crimes are already treated leniently by the criminal justice system for the very reason that they do not involve violence. You’re far more likely to receive an out-of-court disposal (for example a caution or a fixed penalty notice) or a non-custodial sentence already, so all this proposal would do is artificially restrict sentencers’ ability to use prison where it is really necessary. Many of the rioters in London and other English cities were charged with property offences – is Prof Ashworth really suggesting that prison should not have been available as a sanction for them?
Of course we know that, for most people, short sentences do not work well in terms of cutting reoffending. That’s why the government has legislated to ensure that short-sentenced prisoners will in future receive proper support on release.
But we have to deal with the reality that for those offenders who do receive short sentences, it’s because community penalties have already failed time and time again – the very same sentences that the Howard League are suggesting should be used instead.
Magistrates and judges must retain the ability to give communities some respite, especially when they have run out of road with an offender who has failed to respond to community punishments, or whose offence is so serious that only prison will do. If a burglar is breaking into twenty houses a week, a four month prison sentence will prevent an awful lot of people becoming victims of crime.
The Howard League has a noble ambition – to substantially reduce the prison population. But by far the best way of doing that is to prevent crime and reduce reoffending, not to simply ban the use of prison. It would fetter judicial discretion, send the wrong message to offenders and fail to protect victims of crime from harm. And that’s why no sensible government would sanction it.
This originally appeared on the BBC News website.