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Short prison sentences are short-sighted

By Burcu Borysik, Policy Manager at Revolving Doors Agency

At Revolving Doors, we’re proud to bring together policy, research and lived experience to support solutions for people who are caught in the revolving door of crisis and crime. In shaping our strategy, people who have been through (and often failed by) the criminal justice system told us we need ‘to improve sentencing to support both reduced offending and better outcomes for people in the revolving door of crisis and crime’.

This is exactly what we aim to achieve with our new campaign, Short-Sighted, which calls for a new presumption against the use of short custodial sentences of less than six months.

Currently 30,000 people each year go to prison on sentences of less than six months. This represents half of all people sent to prison to serve a sentence. The majority of people serving sentences of less than six months are in prison for non-violent offences. Some common offences that receive a short time in custody are theft and drug offences, linked to underlying problems such as poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, domestic abuse and coercion and poor mental health.

These sentences can be destructive and harmful, disrupting housing, treatment and family ties. Yet the use of community sentences, which can include requirements such as treatment for mental health or alcohol and drug misuse, has been declining – substantially and rapidly.

We now also know that the public strongly oppose the use of prison for petty crime. Our recent poll, conducted by Populus, found:

  • 80 per cent of the public think that theft of daily essentials such as food, sanitary products and nappies does not warrant a prison sentence. This is true for voters across all the major parties.
  • 74 per cent of the public think people with drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes instead of prison.
  • A majority of voters, from all political convictions, said they were likely to vote for an MP candidate that supported reducing prison populations and using the savings to invest in drug treatment and mental health programmes (only 16 per cent said they were unlikely to do so).

The public and the evidence are clear and in agreement: short prison sentences are short-sighted. They are ineffective at tackling petty crime.

Over the last three weeks, politicians from across the political spectrum, Police and Crime Commissioners, legal experts and numerous charities have pledged their support to reducing the use of ineffective short custodial sentences in favour of community sentences where this is safe and appropriate. But we still need your support – together we can adopt a smarter approach. Please pledge your support here.