Is there space for political consensus on criminal justice reform?

“I was destined for failure the moment I left the prison gates. I came out with a raging habit”

Law and order, policing and prisons have long been exploited in political campaigns – understandably seen as a potential weakness of any governing party. But there may be growing consensus that offers a way forward for reform-minded politicians across the political spectrum.

Revolving Doors Agency advocates policies to address the ‘revolving door’ of personal crisis and crime. People in the ‘revolving door’ face a combination of problems at any one time, including substance abuse, poor mental health, housing problems and domestic violence or abuse. These problems compound each other and can lead to a negative cycle of persistent, petty offending and repeated contact with the criminal justice system. 

Currently 30,000 people each year go to prison on sentences of less than six months. This is a staggering number when we consider that it represents half of all people sent to prison to serve a sentence each year. Some common offences that receive a short time in custody are theft and drug offences, which are linked to underlying problems such as poverty, addiction, homelessness and poor mental health. For women, the figures are even starker – one in four women jailed in 2016 were imprisoned for under one month. 

These short prison sentences command some of the highest reoffending rates in the system. Ministry of Justice research is extremely clear; short-term custody of less than 12 months in prison have higher rates of proven re-offending than community orders when you compare matched ‘like for like’ offenders. People who served a short time in prison were also more likely to commit more offences and more serious offences. 

Our understanding is that the evidence and public opinion on ‘revolving doors’ petty offending are not as distant as one might assume. A recent independent poll commissioned by Revolving Doors and undertaken by Populus found that four out of five people oppose the use of prison for the theft of daily essentials. Yet the most common reason people are sent to prison is for stealing. Perhaps more surprising, the public strongly back reducing the prison population and investing the money in drug treatment and mental health programmes instead. This was not a partisan issue - each of the major parties had more people likely to support this policy than unlikely to do so.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog are the following:

  • Conservative voters were asked: ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: 'People with alcohol or drug addiction belong in drug/alcohol treatment programmes instead of prison'? 68% of Conservative voters agreed. Only 16% disagreed.  
  • More Conservative voters (39%) said they were likely to vote for an MP candidate that supported reducing prison populations and using the savings to reinvestment in drug treatment and mental health programmes than those who said they were unlikely to (21%). 
  • 77% of Conservative voters do not think someone should go to prison for stealing food. Only 14% said yes, and 9% don’t know. 

Short sentences are destructive because they disrupt family ties, housing, employment and treatment, yet cannot provide any meaningful rehabilitation. One of the things I have learnt from working alongside people who have been to prison, is that the experience is deeply damaging, and the stigma associated with having been to prison is hard to escape from. A woman in our forums said that “although I was in prison for a short time I felt traumatised by the whole experience”. On release she found herself back in the cycle of revolving doors, once again experiencing a violent relationship and the addiction that led to her criminal justice contact in the first place. 

We also see how destructive, chaotic and ineffective the system can be.  A member of our forum talked about serving 11 short prison sentences and how each time he was released with nowhere to live or to go. Another who has served 18 short prison sentences said “I was destined for failure the moment I left the prison gates. I came out with a raging [drug] habit.”  

Our neighbours to the north and south are leading the way in prison reform. The French government has announced that it will ban prison sentences of less than one month and take action to ensure sentences of less than six months are served in the community. At the end of last year the Scottish Government announced the extension of a presumption against short prison sentences from up to three months to up to 12 months. Our poll shows that if politicians here follow suit, the public will be likely to back them. Certainly in the US the ‘right on crime’ initiative has taken the heat out of the issue and made it less partisan. In some US states politicians of left and right persuasions have worked together to reduce prison numbers and tackle crime. 

We have long debated criminal justice reform in this country. The standard response has been that community sentences need to command greater public confidence before we can take any action. Yet the examples from Scotland and France show us that it is possible to do both at the same time. We are encouraged that the Minister for Prisons and Probation is considering this issue, on the 24th April he told the House of Commons that “we have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. In reoffending terms, it is often much better for somebody to be given a community sentence.” 

Vicki Cardwell is the director of policy and research at the Revolving Doors Agency. She tweets @vickihcardwell

To find out more and to support Revolving Dorr’s campaign, please visit their website.