A piece by Richard Ford, Home Correspondent, and Frances Gibb, Legal Editor, in yesterday’s Times:
Judges and probation staff have agreed to cut the use of suspended jail sentences amid concern that the number of criminals breaching them will cause a surge in the prison population.
In an unprecedented agreement, senior judges have asked courts and probation officers to avoid recommending suspended sentences — even when this would be justified by the seriousness of the offence — because when offenders breach the sentences they end up in jail. [J4MB: Is the concern here that women – who are more likely to get suspended sentences than men – are being sent to jail, i.e. actually being punished, when the whole point of suspended sentences is NOT to punish women?]
There was a ten-fold rise in the use of suspended sentences in the ten years to 2015 and a halving in community punishment orders. At the same time jails have faced rising violence and severe overcrowding. The number of community orders fell from about 203,000 to 108,000 in the decade to 2015 while the number of suspended sentence orders rose from fewer than 4,000 to 52,000.
A guideline due to be released this month, which will tighten up rules on when an offender should be sent to jail for breaking the terms of a suspended sentence, is behind the deal. The guideline could lead to many more offenders being sent straight to prison.
Magistrates were informed of the deal in a letter from the Sentencing Council, the watchdog that advises courts. It reminds them that a suspended sentence “is a custodial sentence [J4MB emphasis] and not a more severe form of community order”. [J4MB: A suspended sentence is a custodial sentence. You couldn’t make this s*** up.]
Lord Justice Treacy, chairman of the council, wrote that he had agreed with the director of the National Probation Service that probation officers “will refrain from recommending suspended sentence orders (SSOs) in pre- sentence reports”. He added: “This does not mean that the court should never suspend a custodial sentence.”
In separate guidance, probation officers have been advised that suspended sentence orders must not be proposed “even when the courts indicate that a custodial threshold has been crossed”.
In his letter, Lord Justice Treacy said that the action was being taken because courts have not changed their sentencing behaviour, despite guidance a year ago on correct use of suspended jail terms.
Last night there remained concern among magistrates who insisted that it was for courts to decide on sentences. John Bache, national chairman of the Magistrates Association, said: “Suspended prison sentences can . . . be an effective option and magistrates should not be deterred by this letter from using them when appropriate.”
Ian Lawrence, general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: “We are not convinced this is the best way to approach this issue. Whilst it may increase community orders it runs the risk of having the opposite effect as well . . . We would urge Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to educate sentencers on how best to use suspended sentences rather than on preventing them being proposed.”
A related leading article in the paper yesterday:
The pressure on prison places is so intense that judges have been instructed to avoid suspended custodial sentences. Interrupting the path to jail would be preferable
He who opens a school door, closes a prison,” said Victor Hugo. There is more wisdom in that single remark than British penal policy has managed in generations. The success of a policy that really ought to be measured by how few people are in prison has instead led to a situation in which the prisons are full to bursting.
The problem is so acute that, as we report today, judges have reached a deal with the Ministry of Justice and probation staff to cut the use of suspended jail terms, even where this would be called for by the gravity of the offence, because frequent breaches are sending too many people into prisons with no cells to accommodate them. There was a ten-fold increase in the use of suspended sentences over the decade to 2015 and a halving of community punishment orders.
In February last year courts were advised that a suspended sentence was a custodial option and not a supercharged form of community service. The implication of that guidance was that courts should seek to refrain from rushing to custodial sentences. The counsel was not followed and so it is now being, in effect, reissued but this time with stronger wording.
Malcolm Richardson, not long retired as chairman of the Magistrates Association, put his finger on a serious problem when he told the justice select committee in March last year that a lack of confidence in community sentences was tempting judges towards the custodial option. That is true; community orders are not as good as they need to be. A sentence has to fulfil the twin criteria of punishment and rehabilitation and too many community orders are of too low a quality. Some recent probation reports tell tales of supervision that was nothing more than a brief phone call.
The absence of viable alternatives, in combination with pressure from government for sentencing to be tough, has produced a prison population in Britain of more than 80,000, which is an occupancy rate of more than 100 per cent. The capital does not exist for an extensive prison building programme so judges have been prevailed upon to keep people out of jail. Clearly, this is all back to front. Tariffs for punishment should be set for the severity of a crime and then the necessary prison places allocated, rather than devising sentencing according to the capacity of the prison to take in new inmates.
The solution actually lies with Victor Hugo’s insight. Half of all British prisoners are classified as “functionally illiterate”. A renewed focus on literacy — perhaps holding pupils back at school until they have gained the basic level — would do more to reduce prison numbers than any deal between the forces of order. Then, when prisoners are detained, the curriculum in jail, which is currently pitiful, needs to be extensive and compulsory. This would be expensive but so is recidivism, which is the other option. We also report today that, with the closure of Pupil Referral Units, pupils excluded from schools are free to roam the streets. We know from previous instances that their chances of falling into crime are depressingly high.
The other notable problem is drugs. In a recent report lamenting the increase of violence in prisons, the chief inspector noted that drugs were seized almost 30 times a day. There are far too many people incarcerated who would be better off, for their sake as well as everyone else’s, in a medical facility.
Rehabilitation for lots of prisoners is a physical necessity as well as a mental requirement. There should not be so many people in jail because they have been unable to pay fines and too many of them are women. [J4MB emphasis. Let’s put that another way – not enough of them are men.]
We are abandoning people to a dismal future because of the stigma of a spell inside. This does not work for victims or criminals, let alone the taxpayer.
You can subscribe to The Times here.