Magistrates and short jail sentences | Letters

Martin Steer JP and Christine Walters respond to Rory Stewart’s suggestion that jail terms of less than six months could be scrapped

Petty offenders are only jailed way into a long pattern of offending and failure to respond to non-custodial sentences. Prison is employed by magistrates usually as a last resort as the bench knows full well that rehabilitation in these days of austerity is unlikely – it is unlikely even for longer sentences.

When the courts have tried all non-custodial punishments escalating from discharges, through fines, to low-level community penalties, medium community penalties, then high-level community penalties, and the drug user/habitual yob on a hair trigger/recidivist hasn’t responded, what does Rory Stewart suggest they do next (Jail terms of six months or less could be scrapped, prisons minister suggests,, 12 January)?

Unless we are going to go down the same route as the USA and start putting people away for years for repeat minor offending (which really would see an explosion in prison numbers), the only option for someone with a history (often a long, long history) of, for example, shoplifting bacon or razors to pay for their drugs is to get them off the streets for as long as is permitted and give the poor bloody corner shop owners a break.
Martin Steer JP
Rangeworthy, Gloucestershire

• I applaud Rory Stewart’s idea of ending short-term prison sentences, even if it is for kneejerk financial reasons. Short-term prison sentences serve as a doubly whammy. If you are sentenced in this way, particularly a woman with children, you lose so much more than your liberty – housing and potentially your children. The knock-on consequences for ex-prisoners continue after release, especially in relation to employment.

However, this initiative puts the cart before the horse. We need a real overhaul of what has been a disastrous dismantling of the probation service. The privatised community rehabilitation companies need to be called to account, and, if not fit for purpose, should be disbanded and incorporated back into the national probation service. We need to look again at intermittent custody, another initiative that was underfunded and -resourced, and abandoned before it had a chance to prove itself.

Community sentences are not a cheap or easy alternative to custody, so if Rory Stewart is looking to reduce financial costs he’s in for a shock, but the long-term gains for individuals and the community are worth the investment.
Christine Walters
Retired magistrate, Buxton, Derbyshire

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