Prison should be reserved for those offenders who pose a risk to the public. Controversial it may be, but that is the only way that imprisonment can have a purpose and role in preventing re-offending.
Huhne and Pryce were both convicted of perverting the course of justice, a serious offence carrying a custodial sentence of up to life imprisonment. But should such an offence carry a custodial sentence? Personally, I would be happier to see Huhne and Pryce sentenced to a community order, repaying their substantial debt to the public by cleaning our streets or working in charity shops. But the fact is, that was never going to happen. Guideline cases suggested a custodial sentence of between 4 and 12 months would be suitable, and so Mr Justice Sweeney cannot be criticised in passing a sentence of eight months in respect of both of them. But the reality is that they are likely to serve somewhere between 2 and 4 months, and be released on licence to serve the remainder in the community.
Two to four months in prison is undoubtedly going to be a shock to the system for the likes of Pryce and Huhne, neither of whom have been imprisoned before, but what good will it actually do? It might give a feeling of satisfaction to the general public to see them shipped off to HMP Holloway and HMP Wandsworth, but have we considered who will be footing the bill of their stay? For that would be us, the tax paying public. It’ll cost us around £25,000 to feed and house the pair for them for 4 months, added to that is the cost of of the pair being on licence, post-custody, which the National Offender Management Service averages out at approximately £2,380 each. Had they been sentenced to a community-based penalty, not only would they be providing a public service but the tax payer wouldn’t be footing the bill for their food and accommodation. The costs of their supervision are estimated to be around £5,240 per offender. Considerably less than the costs of incarceration.
What I advocate is a total change in sentencing powers and practice. Prison should be reserved for violent offenders who pose a real threat to the public. Our prisons should not be open to those who steal from shops, are addicted to cannabis or pervert the course of justice. Individuals who have committed non-violent offences should be diverted away from incarceration and serve their sentences in the community. Not only will this reduce the strain on our vastly overcrowded prisons and be cost-effective, but it will ultimately reduce re-offending as those serving custodial sentences will be subjected to intensive rehabilitation, the likes of which we simply cannot afford at present. This is not a new idea, the Howard League for Penal Reform have long argued that a cut in prison sentences and an increase in community-based penalties will have a dramatic effect in lowering re-offending rates. The fact is this isn’t going to happen overnight, but the increase in suspended sentences (now available for sentences of 24 months or less, an increase of 12 months since 2012) is a step in the right direction. But we need to take more of those steps. For things to change we need to see a total reform of criminal sentencing. Only then will we see re-offending rates substantially reduce, which is, arguably, the most important aim of criminal sentencing.
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