Ministers’ calls for short prison sentences to be abolished would see thousands of hardened criminals avoid jail, a report has claimed.
David Gauke, the justice secretary, last week said that terms of less than six months were ineffective in preventing crime and outlined plans to encourage judges to use strengthened community orders instead.
“If it is necessary to legislate, which it may very well be, that is something I’d want to explore,” he said, amid a prisons crisis in which violence and self-harm are at record highs.
His speech was welcomed by reform campaigners, but a report by the Civitas think tank claimed the proposals would amount to an amnesty for prolific thieves and burglars.
Report author Peter Cuthbertson analysed Ministry of Justice figures on short sentences to find that the vast majority were handed out for shoplifting, theft burglary, public order offences, weapons and drug possession, and driving offences.
“The consequences for public safety could be enormous, with the government unleashing a crime wave on hundreds of thousands of citizens,” he wrote. “[Prisons minister] 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.”
Mr Cuthbertson calculated that abolishing terms of less than six months would result in in non-custodial sentences for about 34,000 offenders a year who would currently go to prison. Around 4,000 would be first-time offenders, leaving the remainder of terms that would be abolished being for repeat offenders.
“The government must now consider the evidence, rather than proceed any further with plans for an effective amnesty for burglars, shoplifters and other prolific criminals,” Mr Cuthbertson wrote.
His analysis suggested the proportion of people given community sentences for knife possession would rise from 70 to 83 per cent and for burglary from 44 to 58 per cent.
Abolishing short sentences could also see less than one per cent of shoplifters jailed and “effectively remove the threat of prison for any kind of drug possession – a charge often used by police against drug dealers when more substantive charges seem unlikely to stick”, the report said.
Many of the offences are currently dealt with by magistrates’ courts, which cannot pass sentences longer than six months, but burglary, drug and knife possession can be sent to crown courts for a longer sentence.
Mr Gauke said there was a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less after a government study found links between short terms and higher reoffending.
He said that there would be closely defined exceptions for some violent and sexual crimes, but Mr Cuthbertson argued that violent and non-violent offenders could not be divided into separate groups.
“Burglars avoiding prison means violent offenders avoiding prison because it is the same criminals doing both,” he said.
Civitas said the findings raised serious questions about the implications for public safety of failing to keep so many repeat offenders off the streets, even for relatively short periods.
Mr Gauke previously said that reoffending rates were stubbornly high and called for a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like.
“For the offenders completing these short sentences whose lives are destabilised, and for society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working,” he said. “It is not a choice between hard and soft justice, it is a choice between effective and ineffective justice.”
But the government’s part privatisation of the probation service has created a two-tier system where community rehabilitation companies have been underperforming and needed government bailouts to stay afloat.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said public protection remained a priority.
“It would be wrong to spend taxpayers’ money doing what we know doesn’t work – and the evidence is clear that short sentences often do more harm than good,” the spokesperson said.
“They fail to rehabilitate many offenders and lead to high rates of reoffending, which actually makes us less safe and more likely to be a victim of crime. That is why we are exploring more stringent and enforceable community sentences – but this work is ongoing and we’ve reached no conclusions at this time.”