UK government plans to do away with short prison sentences could result in tens of thousands of convicts on Britain’s streets, “unleashing a crime wave” on citizens, a think tank report has warned.
Civitas’s report published Monday predicts that the government’s proposal to abandon custodial sentences of fewer than six months for certain crimes in favour of community service orders and curfews would mean approximately 34,000 criminals would be let loose, 30,000 of whom would be repeat offenders.
Earlier this month Justice Minister David Gauke said there was “a very strong case to abolish sentences of 6 months or less altogether,” marking the Conservative Party’s departure from its traditional stance on incarcerating criminals in favour of so-called “smart” justice.
While the changes would not affect those convicted of violent or sex crimes, it would mean a substantial number of burglars, thieves, fraudsters, drink-drivers, and those caught in the possession of drugs and knives not receiving time in jail.
The Civitas report, “Ending Short Prison Sentences: An amnesty for prolific thieves and burglars?”, used Ministry of Justice data from 2017 to estimate that the changes in sentencing would result in the “effective decriminalisation of shoplifting” where custodial sentences for thefts from shops would fall from an already-low 21 percent of convictions to 0.4 percent and 58 percent of burglars avoiding prison — up from 44 percent.
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The report warns that it would be the “effective end” of prison for drug possession, an “even more lax approach” to drink driving, and would result in even fewer custodial sentences for those carrying knives, with the proportion of those avoiding prison rising from 70 percent to 83 percent – while the UK has seen the highest level of knife crime on record.
A London magistrate also said the proposed changes would be a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for serious offenders tried at magistrates’ courts, which can give a maximum sentence of six months.
“They [criminals] all know that the maximum that Magistrates can give is six months. So as long as they plead guilty at the last minute, even the minimum 10% discount will always mean a non-custodial sentence,” the magistrate explained.
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The government proposals are backed by prisons minister Rory Stewart who said in January that such a length in jail was “too short to heal” offenders, painting a picture of dispossessed individuals facing disruption to families, loss of jobs and access to benefits, and vulnerability to influence from other criminals in prison, all resulting in a higher chance of recidivism.
Report author Peter Cuthbertson, author of “Ending Short Prison Sentences: An amnesty for prolific thieves and burglars?” wrote, “Rory Stewart claims that ending sentences below six months would help respectable people to hold on to their jobs and reputations.
“In reality, his own department’s data makes clear that it would mean tens of thousands more hardened criminals avoiding prison. It would mean far more victims of burglary and shoplifting, drink driving, and knife crime.”
Cuthbertson, founder of the Centre for Crime Prevention, pointed to comparative data from Italy on large-scale pardons over a 44-year period which resulted in not only extra crimes being committed, but that the cost of those crimes were greater than the savings in the prisons budget.
“The evidence from the United States is similar – when courts have ordered large scale prisoner releases to prevent overcrowding, there was a clear positive impact on the crime rate,” he added.
Mr Cuthbertson stated that if Stewart’s assertion that the measures will reduce crime are proven wrong, “the consequences for public safety could be enormous, with the government unleashing a crime wave on hundreds of thousands of citizens.”
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