Short-term sentences are no answer to a long ball game

Labour politicians should be braver and accept that short term sentences fail offenders and communities argues EMMA LIDDLE.

Last week Kenny MacAskill reiterated his commitment to not using short-term prison sentences and instead utilising community alternatives.  The SNP wanted to eliminate sentences of 6 months or less – I would take this further and end any sentence of 12 months or less.

I am not going to lay claim to being any kind of expert in criminal justice but I have spent the last four years working in prisons and Young Offenders Institutions for a voluntary organisation which gives me a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t – and short term sentences don’t work.

What is the purpose of prison?  To punish, to act as a deterrent to offending, to keep communities safe, to reduce reoffending.  The Scottish Prison Service sees their aims as only the latter two and correctly so; it is the job of courts to punish and to remove liberty.  The loss of liberty should act as the deterrent, not the conditions in prison itself.

Short-term prison sentences do protect the public; but as it says on the tin only for a short time.  A short-sentence is often enough for someone to lose their home, their job or college place, for relationships and family bonds to break-down, to acquire a drug-habit and to have made links with serious offenders which may lead to further offending.  So while a community may have short-term respite we are doing them a disservice because we are sending people back into their communities no less likely to offend and in many cases more likely to.

A short sentence allows none of the time to do the things that prison can do well that help reduce reoffending.  Someone serving a short sentence may have time to detox, they may be able to engage with voluntary organisation, they can attend education and work, if spaces are available.  However they are unlikely to take part in any accredited programmes, they will struggle to complete any qualifications or gain any vocational certificates in such a short space of time.  They may be able to access emotional support and counselling but with waiting lists for many voluntary organisations it is doubtful that someone will have enough time to address the multiple and complex needs which lead to their offending behaviour.

Prison resources are finite and they are rightly directed towards long-term and serious offenders.  Reducing the number of people in prison by directing minor offenders into meaningful community alternatives would allow resources to be directed at those who need the most help.

The recent riots in England have sparked debate (including here on LabourHame) about what we do with offenders.  I can understand the call for tough sentences but it concerns me to think what will happen to teenagers caught up in the riots if they are sent to prison for years.  What purpose will this truly serve?  I think it will reinforce these young people’s belief that they are somehow separate from their community and wider society; it will further alienate and disenfranchise them.  These young people already felt marginalised; a prison sentence will only further reduce their opportunity to be a responsible and productive member of society.  I believe it would be more meaningful for many of the rioters to be diverted into community sentences combined with restorative justice.  Have the rioters repair some of the damage they did in their communities; have them meet the people who became the victims of the riots and understand that it wasn’t the police or the Government they were attacking but rather people from their own community.

It will take a brave politician to say actually we’re not going to send many people to prison but if Labour want to develop policy based on evidence of what works then bravery is essential.  It is our job to explain to voters the benefits of community alternatives and have them understand why ultimately such diversions from custody will in the long term reduce the crime in their communities. Remember ‘Tough on crime, Touch on the Causes of Crime’ – it is possible!  Getting rid of short sentences isn’t about being soft on crime it’s about being realistic about what actually stops offending.

Emma Liddle is a Labour activist who lives and works in Edinburgh. 

Related Posts

11 thoughts on “Short-term sentences are no answer to a long ball game

  1. Why did you not speak up and try to convince the Scottish Labour leadership that short-term jail sentences don’t work before the last election?

    If Labour had won the Scottish elections they would have enacted a policy that you as a grassroot member would have considered to be totally counter-productive.

    Does this not show that the Labour leaders don’t actually listen or take on board the concerns of grassroot members!

    1. One could easily say the same about any political party. How many grass-roots Lib Dems would have wanted a coalition with the tories? How many Grass-roots Tories would want to stay in the EU? How many grass-roots nationalists want corporation tax cuts for rich businesses?

      Yes, the policy was a mistake, and our leadership needs to know why it was. I think this is beginning to dawn on them.

      1. John Ruddy

        I would for a start. A different rate of CT might make a start to draw some businesses away from the South East of England and help employment in Scotland. Presumably you are happy with the Labour position that they support the right of the tory government to impose whatever corporation tax they like on Scotland.

        How many grass-roots Labour members support prescription charges, PPP/PFI or doubling the starting rate of tax?

    2. Mac, prior to the election I wrote to Richard Baker outlining my concerns and I met with him to discuss these issues.

      He remained firm in his belief that short term sentences had their place.

      I think there were many policies in the manifesto that did not reflect views of grassroots members. This appears to have been recognised by the review and will be addressed.


      1. I hope you told Richard Baker that having policies based on belief rather than evidence is no way for the Scottish Labour leadership to behave.

  2. A good article – and all the more so coming from somebody who has bothered to do something, both volunteering and trying influence Labour Party policy.

    We can’t just keep sending more and more people to prison only for them to reoffend when they come out. We know it doesn’t work so why try more of the same.

    The same applies to the ‘war’ on drugs – time for a new approach to both of these troublesome and closely related problems.

  3. We have a lad who keeps stealing cars, he steals them for the chase of the police, he will wait for the police to arrive to get the fun of his driving at high speed smashing the car up and then running away, the Police drive to his home take him in he gets a ban fine and then gets let out.

    Maybe next week he will steal a car drive off smash the car killing a family the courts will splutter about trying to give him a chance while the family of the dead ask why.

    We have another 16 year moron who steals from houses, he walks in and then steals money or TV or what ever he can flog, he has to date 110 cases the police now know him so well they go down to his house and get the items back except the money he has spent that, he even did this while being tagged.

    He takes a screw driver with him , how long before a home owners tackles him and he kills with that screw driver, or he is killed.

    The simple fact is we need to place these people in jails not to protect the person committing the crime, but the public, we should give a person for crimes like theft one chance, the second chance should be a short Sharpe jail, and then if they do it a third time then sorry jail them for ten years and I means ten years.

    Prison protects me and my family and if you do not want to go to jail do not do the crime

  4. Treborc,

    By no way am I saying that we should not use prison – for serious and persistent offenders it is absolutely right that they are sent to prison. I would ask you though, do you want prison to serve just as respite for you and your community or do you have an expectation that it will rehabilitate offenders?

    I believe that prison should rehabilitate and my argument is that you cannot do that in less than a year.

    How we manage offenders requires a whole system approach and it is important that the courts have available to them sentencing options which can respond to repeat offenders. I’m not an advocate of a 3 strikes and you’re out approach but in the case you are talking about it is clear that whatever sentence he has received has not been sufficient to address his offending behaviour. I think there is definitely an argument for longer sentences in some cases – but we cannot do that with everyone.

    It saddens me to hear about these two young men. Clearly they are causing great distress in their communities which cannot be excused. However we must ask ourselves what has occurred in the lives of these two young people so they are behaving in such as way?

    I can’t talk about these two people specifically but I can tell you that the majority of people who end up in prison do so because of the lives they have had.

    To give you a quick profile of prisoners –

    -most have not completed education past primary school
    -the average reading age is of an 11 year old
    – a majority will have alcohol and/or drug addictions
    – 2/3rds will have one or more mental disorders
    – most will have been in the care system
    – over 60% of males and 90% of female offenders will have experienced physical, sexual or other abuses as a child
    – will have come from chaotic family relationships (and by this please don’t think I mean just a lack of discipline- this means neglect, violence, a lack of love, care and nurture, exposure to violence, exposure to parents/carers misusing substances)

    None of this excuses offending behaviour but it should tell us that offenders are people who in many cases have not learned how to function in society; they have not been given the basic social and emotional tools. We have a duty to recognise this and respond accordingly. I’m not talking about ‘hug a hoodie’ but being realistic and practical about what is required.

    You talk about using prison as a ‘short sharp shock’ and I can tell you in the majority of cases this just does not happen. We have an average reoffending rate of around 44% in Scotland. If you look at reoffending rates for under 21s then figure jumps to over 80% and for under 18s it is over 90%. This to me illustrates that the short sharp shock does not work. These young people are not considering the consequences of their actions and nor are they worried about going to prison. People are only scared of going to prison when they have something to lose – if your life outside is marked by chaos, violence, distress and trauma prison can be a welcome respite.

    How many times do we hear of people ask judges to send them to court because it is the only place they feel they can get help.

    From research we know there are 3 key things which stop people reoffending – 1) maturation – i.e. people grow out of their offending behaviour 2) social capital – a family, partner, child, a job or college place (the incentives to stay out and the structure to help make it possible and 3) a change is self narrative – seeing yourself as something other than ‘a criminal’ or a troublemaker, realising you have the potential to be and do something else.

  5. Congratulations to Emma on having the courage to speak out for policy change.
    Labour has made a fetish of solidarity and loyalty. A strength pushed too far becomes a weakness and turned it into deadening conformity to the mediocre. Time to loosen up and let a thousand tongues contend.

    There are knock on implications for other policies, eg. Minimum Pricing and Sectarianism. I highlight an inconsistency of approach on a set of policies. At present Labour has taken a hard line approach to knife crime and minimum sentences – and opposed/obstructed a hard line approach to Minimum Pricing and, potentially, to the Sectarian legislation, because they were SNP initiatives. Essentially it comes down to the current stance of ‘being agin the SNP government’ – even when that means being against the Scottish people. How about – when all else fails, stop banging your head against the wall.

    Labour need to find the courage to change from ‘automatic opposition’ : to ‘appropriate support PLUS policy extensions/improvements/amendments/supplementals to make those policies work even better’. This takes the courageous stance that the electorate will note and approve the shift from girning negativity to constructive effort to improve Scottish society. It worked/works for the SNP.

    Picking up on Emma’s points on the ineffectiveness of short term sentencing and the chaotic home life of such criminals, points to the logical consistency of a future policy platform of:
    Support for Community sentences – drop support for short prison sentences. But press for stiffer sentencing for more serious offenders, particularly knife crime. Improve prison support services, probation, aftercare, deflection programmes, for example. View and address it as a system and process, not one-off issues. Ie. political stance of ‘soft, Hard.Soft’

    Support for Minimum Pricing (legislation aimed at health costs rather than crime admittedly) – with renewed effort to press local councils and government(s) to direct youthful time and energies into positive pursuits including sport and recreation. Implied is support for the SNP Government programme of opportunities for youth.
    Support for the Sectarian legislation – PLUS coming up with constructive add- ons, etc etc to make the basics of the legislation go further, go better, work more successfully – and by all means claim the credit.

    Labour need to resolve the split personality of being ‘socialist’ and against free enterprise – being Blairite ‘profit rules’ capitalist. But whilst reconciling those stances needs to add in a realistic place for the fact that small business is the engine of economic development and future employment. It is not enough to posture in favour of ‘more employment’ In the current climate that is baying at the moon. So, I suggest policies aimed at re-socialising the soulless housing estates, into mixed districts of housing, recreation, retail shopping, light employment, services activity. Places to live, work and play. Not dead dormitories. Address the social root causes of the deprivation, dysfunctional lives etc that generate the self-destructive drunkenness, drugs, crime and violence that blights lives.

  6. Its a pity mr Baker didnt listen to you, and having such experiance with prisons, then there are no better people to ask than them working at the coal face.
    Well done Emma, and interesting article.

Comments are closed.