Not so smart justice

On 18 February Justice Secretary David Gauke gave a speech setting out his ‘vision’ for the future of the criminal justice system – a future he described as ‘smart justice’, in which people currently being sentenced to very short prison terms will instead be subject to rigorous community supervision. Gauke is no liberal but he immediately faced a predictable backlash against the idea that any fewer people should be imprisoned. Nicki Jameson reports.

Gauke’s speech was reminiscent of those from then newly-appointed Con-Dem Coalition Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke in 2010. Like Clarke, Gauke began by highlighting the massive growth in the prison population which took place under the 1997-2010 Labour government, as well as during the previous Conservative regimes of Thatcher and Major – from around 45,000 in 1993 to 83,000 in 2006. Despite a few spikes, such as that caused by the mass imprisonment which followed the 2011 inner-city uprisings, prison numbers have remained generally stable since then. However, the punishment machinery is vast, unwieldy, inefficient by any standards and expensive to run. So, whoever is charged with making overall policy for it will look for ways to solve these problems. A recurrent theme in the quest for a ‘solution’ is the proposal to stop sentencing repeat low-level offenders to short prison terms.

The evidence is convincing:

  • In the last five years, the courts have given out over 300,000 custodial sentences of 12 months or less.
  • Nearly two-thirds of those released from short sentences are reconvicted within a year
  • 27% of reoffending is committed by people who have served short sentences.
  • The most common offence for which people are sentenced to less than six months is shoplifting – 11,500. Almost half of all women sentenced to short custodial sentences are in for shoplifting.
  • People who commit this kind of crime often have drug or alcohol problems, which are not resolved by imprisonment. Short prison terms can result in losing benefits and access to drug or alcohol support services and treatment.
  • The impact of short custodial sentences on women is particularly significant and imprisonment often causes huge disruption to the lives of their children.

Gauke’s plans therefore centre around ‘a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, and put in their place, a robust community order regime’. This ‘regime’ would be shored up by tagging and other forms of monitoring, and by a newly recruited batch of probation officers. It is no coincidence that Gauke’s ‘vision for a “smart” justice system’ came just two days after he announced plans to bring in GPS tagging for released prisoners and people on pre-trial bail by the summer.

Although it seems clear from his reference to ‘our justice partners’ that the GPS tagging will be carried out by private companies, Gauke has not said whether the new probation officers will be state employees or contracted out. The privatisation of parts of the probation service in 2015 has been widely viewed as a chaotic failure.

Gauke’s proposals were welcomed by members of the Select Committee on Justice, with Labour member Ellie Reeves arguing that ‘although the policy direction of the Ministry of Justice seems centred on sentences of six months or less, I believe we should consider the costs and consequences of sentences of up to 12 months, and enshrine a presumption against them in law.’

However, as is always part of the pattern, no matter how timid the mooted reduction in the use of custodial sentences, and indeed no matter how draconian the alternative, a backlash will ensue in which the proposals are attacked as ‘soft’. Clarke’s plan to abolish short sentences was immediately attacked both by the right wing of his own party and by zealous former ministers from the previous Labour government, Sadiq Khan and Hazel Blears. By the time he published his Green Paper in December 2010, the proposal had been dropped. The government then went on to turn short sentences into a new form of revolving door punishment, as we described in FRFI 260 October/November 2017:

‘Since February 2015... anyone leaving custody in England and Wales, who has served two days or more in prison is subject to at least 12 months of “community supervision”. (Scotland has not implemented such measures and is moving towards less use of short sentences.) ‘As a result, the number of people recalled to custody following release, for breaching the terms of this supervision, has increased by nearly 1,000. Nearly 8,000 people serving less than 12 months were sent back to prison in the year to December 2016.’

This time around – although crime is far from the top of any politician’s current agenda – Gauke faced attack from right-wing think-tank Civitas, whose report Ending Short Prison Sentences: An amnesty for prolific thieves and burglars? was featured in most newspapers. More significantly, Gauke faces the caution of his own colleagues in the face of mounting concern around knife crime. On 18 March The Times reported that Gauke had ‘been forced to water down prison reforms after it emerged that plans to abolish short sentences would see about 4,000 knife-wielding criminals a year avoid jail’ and quoted a Downing Street spokesperson who said: ‘It is self-evident that Britain is facing rising levels of knife crime, the criminal justice system needs at its disposal long and short sentences to combat this scourge.’

Once again the government is caught in a trap of its own making. Although Justice Ministers would be unlikely to accept that most ‘crimes’ – and especially low-level property offences – which lead people to prison are rooted in the inequalities of capitalist society, even they openly admit that short prison sentences do nothing to prevent crime, are costly and difficult to administer, and in many cases actively harm those they are imposed on. However the will to abolish them is stymied every time by the stronger political imperatives of punishment and control.

Prison, whether for short or long periods, is a weapon used by the ruling class to discipline the working class and maintain its power and, unless that power is emphatically challenged and overthrown, this type of meaningless tinkering with the system will continue with no real systemic change.

Nicki Jameson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 269 April/May 2019


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