New thinking on prison sentencing needed | Letters

A different approach is required, where punishment is not seen as an inevitable escalator of severity, writes Andy Stelman; while Peter Fellows says that a way forward might be to adopt a points system similar to that used to endorse motoring crime

The helpful info graphic accompanying the Ministry of Justice 2018 statistics (Report, 24 May) showed that 71% of offenders sentenced to immediate custody received sentences of six months or less. This makes the present push to follow Scotland’s example and abolish such sentences even more compelling. But that of itself would not solve the problem. The numbers of offenders being returned to prison for failing to conform to the requirements of their community sentence or licence has increased from a mere 150 in 1993 to nearly 7,000 in 2016. This reflects a predominant criminal justice culture here: you punish an offender; he or she does not get “cured” by that punishment; so next time you punish them harder. And most offenders, who tick many of the boxes on the social deprivation indices, have spent their lives flouting authority and breaking rules. So it’s hardly surprising that many find conforming to stringent imposed rules quite difficult. A different approach is needed, where punishment is not seen as an inevitable escalator of severity, and which offers frustrated magistrates an alternative to the counterproductive short prison sentence.
Andy Stelman
(Retired assistant chief probation officer, Merseyside), Bishops Castle, Shropshire

• While the cost of short jail sentences and the lack of time to take effective measures to reform behaviour calls their usefulness into question, they are still needed where every alternative non-custodial sentence has been tried and has failed, and the need to protect the victims, for example in domestic violence cases, is paramount. A way forward might be to adopt a points system similar to that used to endorse motoring crime. A criminal “clocking up” 12 points (months) would serve a year’s imprisonment, and the presence of the points would act to deter future criminality. As with motoring offences, a three-year period free of offending would wipe the slate clean.

By this means short sentences could be abolished without undermining the ability of the lower courts to signal the seriousness of the crime. It would, in effect, be a better way of using the current system of suspended sentences.
Peter Fellows, JP

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