United Kingdom: single offender has been jailed nearly 200 times

A single offender has been sentenced to almost 200 jail terms of less than six months in their lifetime, new figures reveal, renewing calls for an overhaul of the justice system to curb the use of ineffective short sentences.

The highest number of previous immediate prison sentences of under six months given to an offender sentenced in 2018 in England and Wales was 198, according to a response to a freedom of information request submitted by the charity Revolving Doors.

Since 2017, 339 people being sentenced had received a total of 20 or more short prison terms, while 20 people had received 50 or more, the answer to a written question by the MP Kevan Jones shows.

About 82% of people convicted of theft who are sentenced to less than six months in prison are convicted again within a year of release, according to analysis of 2016 figures by Revolving Doors.

There is no legal minimum for a sentence but in practice magistrates rarely sentence below five days. The Guardian has spoken to offenders who have received successive sentences of two to three weeks.

The disclosures come as ministers weigh up scrapping short prison sentences for non-violent offences and replacing them with community punishments. This year, the justice secretary, David Gauke, said: “If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime.”

Reducing the use of short sentences has been given the backing of the justice select committee, which has urged the government to consider abolishing sentences of under 12 months.

The Scottish government is to extend a presumption against short prison sentences of less than three months to sentences of up to year, prompting calls for a similar move in England and Wales.

Revolving Doors is urging the new prisons and probation minister, Robert Buckland, to introduce a presumption against short prison sentences of less than six months in England and Wales.

The charity’s chief executive, Christina Marriott, said: “To give people another short prison sentence, sometimes for the 50th or 100th time, is evidentially short-sighted. It is obvious why short spells in custody cannot work as effectively as community sentences: being sent to prison damages the lives of both offenders and their children, they drive reoffending, creating more crimes and more victims.”

“Short jail terms contribute to prison churn and chaos, making it harder to rehabilitate the people who do need to be there. The 82% reconviction rate for people sent to prison for theft represents huge systemic failure.”

Marriott said the Scottish government had used a presumption against short sentences alongside other measures “to improve public safety and save lives”. “It is time our government grasped the nettle. The new minister has a golden opportunity in his time in office to use evidence to drive sensible reform,” she said.

The charity has argued in support of investment in drug treatment in the community, and says the government should ensure people with addictions are not sent to prison for theft when alternatives can be more effective at breaking the cycle.

More than half of the 86,275 offenders sentenced to immediate custody in England and Wales in 2017 were handed sentences of six months or less, according to a parliamentary response to the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, last month.

Responding to the latest figures, Burgon said: “We need an end to the revolving door where people are in and out of prison after receiving super-short sentences that simply don’t work. Ineffective short sentences not only fail to reduce reoffending, and so leave our communities less safe, but are an incredibly expensive option, placing great strain on an already overstretched justice system.”

“We need to replace ineffective short sentences with robust community alternatives that the evidence shows would actually help people turn their lives around, lower reoffending and improve public safety. That is yet another reason why we need to fix our broken probation system. Labour is currently carrying out a consultation on how in government we can best put an end to such wasteful short sentences.”

In 2010, the Scottish government legislated for a presumption against sentences of less than three months, which it says led to a reduction in the reconviction rate from 29.6% to 27% between 2011-12 and 2015-16, while the number of short custodial sentences fell by 31% between 2011-12 and 2017-18.

This month, ministers at Holyrood published an order to extend the measure to cover sentences of up to a year.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “This evidence shows that short sentences are often ineffective and we should not spend taxpayers’ money on what we know doesn’t work. Almost two-thirds of prisoners on short sentences go on to reoffend soon after release, meaning we are less safe than we could be and more likely to be a victim of crime.”

“That is why we have announced a comprehensive reform of our probation system that will ensure stringent and enforceable community sentences, and which evidence shows will help these repeat offenders turn away from crime for good.”

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