Tuesday, 20 July 2010

the short-term prison sentence (1966 Bow Group Memorandum)

New Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has been questioning the effectiveness of prisons particularly in respect of short term sentences.  One idea he is promoting to try and reduce current numbers imprisoned is to get rid of short sentences - in particular those under six months.

I have been meaning to spend some time writing a detailed analysis of the Liberal/Tory policies on punishment but other priorities have taken precedence.  I will however get around to it when time (and life) permits.

Meanwhile digging around in the Whose Crime Library I came across an old Bow Group pamphlet the short-term prison sentence written by Robert Bessell and published in 1966.

Writing at a time that the England and Wales prison population had risen to 'over 20,000' and the cost of running the prisons was over £22 million; a 'colossal expenditure of money and man-power'.  Bessell argued for the abolition of the short-term prison sentence - a policy that if implemented would have reduced the prison population to around 6,000.

Central to his analysis was a claim that
there is in prison a hard-core of men and women, probably not very large in proportion to the prison population, with very considerable problems, which there is not the faintest prospect of resolving so long as the entire prison service is overburdened.
The overburdening is blamed on excessive use of prison with 'the great mass of the prison population consists(ing) of a heterogeneous crowd of men with very short-term sentences.'

This argument, that indeed prison could work, if it was not for overcrowding, remains a popular one today, when the England & Wales official population is over 80,000. Given that 20,000 overburdened the system the scale of reduction required is substantial. Indeed when in the early 1930s the population was down to about 9,000 no evidence was produced to show that, at these levels, prison could work in the ways that reformers continue to hope.

Bessell concluded that 'sentences of less than 6 months should, without exception, be abolished.' They 'serve no purpose and meet no need.'  Whilst the argument has considerable attractions it does carry dangers.  Unable to pass sentences of under six months many Magistrates would increase the sentences on those they had previously sentenced for shorter periods. The alternatives - community sentences - would all be backed up by prison, so many would end up in prison anyway.

But far more important than a detailed examination of the strengths and weakness of this argument is to recognise that it is not new. The very case being promoted by penal reformers and Ken Clarke has been around for many years.  What is crucial is to ask why the ideas promoted by Bessell and indeed others prior to him failed to gain policy traction. Why was Bessell's case ignored and in the 44 years since have we seen the prison population continue to rise and the continued use of short sentences (as well as increase in sentence length) be central to policy?

Unless those promoting "rational" ideas in penal policy can explain why these same ideas have been repeatedly rejected they will be unable to make any more progress than Robert Bessell and his contemporaries achieved.

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