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Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, has pledged to pursue Texas-style justice by sending fewer low-level offenders to prison and making them clean up graffiti and plant forests instead.
Writing in The Telegraph, he said the reform would end the “cycle of criminality” caused by a “merry-go-round of short sentences”.
However, the Government is also moving to head off claims that it is presiding over soft justice by tightening up rules to make sure rapists serve their sentences in full.
On Monday, Mr Chalk will announce changes aimed at tackling the overcrowding crisis in prisons, after figures last week showed the incarcerated population of England and Wales had hit a record high of 88,225.
Measures to release more prisoners early and to spare some criminals facing shorter prison sentences from going to jail are expected to feature in the announcement.
Mr Chalk said that the Government had “brought in longer sentences for the most dangerous prisoners”, including ending automatic halfway release, so serious sexual and violent offenders serve two thirds of their sentence behind bars.
He pledged to “go further” by making sure that “rapists spend the entirety of their sentence in prison – so that victims get the justice they deserve and the British people are protected”.
He said: “No longer will the perpetrators of this heinous crime walk out of prison after even two thirds of their sentence. A 15-year sentence will mean 15 years in prison.”
Prisons ‘under intense pressure’
Responding to criticism of judges delaying sentencing decisions because of the pressure on prisons, he said: “There have been inaccurate reports claiming that judges are being told not to send rapists to prison.
“Let me be categorical: this is untrue. Under this Government, the most serious and dangerous offenders are being locked away for longer.”
However, Mr Chalk said that the Government did need to “think again about how we manage population pressures in the long term, so there are always sufficient spaces to lock up the most dangerous criminals”.
Despite 100 places being added to the prison estate each week, he said the system was “under intense pressure”, with the prison population “double the level it was 30 years ago”, and housing a prisoner for a year costing about £47,000.
“We need to keep people safe – and that means moving away from short-term prison sentences that make hardened criminals rather than rehabilitated offenders. So we need to look again at low-level offenders.”
Pointing out that the reoffending rate for people who spend less than a year in prison is over 50 per cent, he said a “short stretch of a few months isn’t enough time to rehabilitate criminals, but is more than enough to dislocate them from family, work and home connections that keep them from crime”.
He added: “Too often, offenders routinely turn back to crime as soon as they walk out of the prison gates. No prison system should further criminalise offenders or trap criminals who might otherwise take the right path in a cycle of criminality through a merry-go-round of short sentences.”
Rather than having low-level offenders “languishing in prison”, he said they could “repay their debt to society within communities” by “cleaning up neighbourhoods, scrubbing graffiti off walls, and even helping to plant new forests”.
Mr Chalk said the UK could learn from Texas, which has carried out a series of reforms to reduce sentencing verdicts for non-violent offenders and promote probation and drug rehabilitation as alternatives to prison.
Sentencing reforms will break the costly cycle of crime
By Alex Chalk
The first job of any government is to keep people safe. Safe in our homes, safe when we’re walking down the street, and safe when we send our children out to play.
I am proud this Conservative government has acted to clamp down on crime and keep the worst offenders locked up for longer. Violent crime is down by 46 per cent and domestic burglary by 55 per cent.
For too long, we didn’t lock up the most dangerous, hardened criminals for long enough. Life sentences for men who brutally murdered women meant they were let out in 20 years and rapists who got 10 years were out in five. That is why we have brought in longer sentences for the most dangerous prisoners.
We have ended automatic halfway release so serious sexual and violent offenders serve two-thirds of their sentence behind bars. We have introduced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for those who cause or allow the death of a child and we will make whole life sentences mandatory for the most heinous types of murder with a sexual or sadistic conduct.
There have been inaccurate reports that judges are being told not to send rapists to prison. This is untrue. The most serious and dangerous offenders are being locked away for longer. Just last week, I blocked the automatic release of Robert Brown, who brutally killed his wife, to keep him behind bars and ensure his release is given proper consideration by the Parole Board.
And we are going to go further. We will ensure rapists spend the entirety of their sentence in prison – so victims get the justice they deserve and the British people are protected. No longer will the perpetrators of this heinous crime walk out of prison after even two-thirds of their sentence. A 15-year sentence will mean 15 years in prison. This is the justice that the British people expect, and we will deliver it.
But to do that, we need to think again about how we manage population pressures in the long term, so there are always sufficient spaces to lock up the most dangerous criminals. While we are pulling every lever to build more capacity than at any time in the last century, prison spaces are finite.
We are rolling out new, rehabilitative prison places as part of the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era – in places like HMP Fosse Way which I opened this year.
It is tough, secure, and geared towards getting offenders on the straight and narrow and out of the cycle of crime. Additional capacity has been delivered at an unprecedented rate of over 100 places a week.
Further, we are investing up to £400 million, enough to buy and install around 800 cells, as we expand our roll-out of Rapid Deployment Cells – the fastest route to building more prison spaces.
Yet the system is still under intense pressure. The prison population is at an all-time high – double the level it was 30 years ago.
This does not come cheap to the taxpayer. Housing just one prisoner for a year costs around £47,000. With over 88,000 prisoners currently behind bars, those costs quickly mount up.
Of course, it is not just about the cost of incarceration but the cost to society of repeat reoffending. We need to keep people safe – and that means moving away from short-term prison sentences that make hardened criminals rather than rehabilitated offenders. So we need to look again at low-level offenders. Because while the overall reoffending rate is 25 per cent, the rate for people who spend fewer than 12 months in prison is over 50 per cent.
A short stretch of a few months inside isn’t enough time to rehabilitate criminals, but is more than enough to dislocate them from the family, work and home connections that keep them from crime. Too often, offenders routinely turn back to crime as soon as they walk out of the prison gates.
No prison system should further criminalise offenders or trap criminals who might otherwise take the right path in a cycle of criminality through a merry-go-round of short sentences. This is the wrong use of our prison system and taxpayers’ money. It doesn’t deliver for victims and it doesn’t cut crime. We need to fix this.
There are alternatives to having low level offenders languishing in prison. Judges can make them repay their debt to society in communities – cleaning up neighbourhoods, scrubbing graffiti off walls, and even helping to plant new forests. And with technology moving on rapidly, these options are growing. The latest GPS tags, for example, offer many more options than the radio frequency versions, which were the only ones available to the court when I first started my career as a prosecutor.
Other places have seized these opportunities, including US states like Texas, not known for its relaxed approach to criminal justice. They have seen crime fall and confidence grow.
To govern is to choose. We choose to lock up the most dangerous criminals for longer and to cut reoffending by stopping the costly spiral of crime.
To do that, we need to reform our approach to sentencing. On Monday, I will set out how we will take the right long-term decisions to make the justice system work to protect the public, increase punishment for the most dangerous, and cut crime.
Alex Chalk is the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor
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