With jail numbers set to surge within the subsequent six years, there’s a actual threat that the demand for locations will outstrip provide. Newest projections present the jail inhabitants reaching 98,700 in September 2026, 1 / 4 increased than as we speak’s 79,000. Some 85% of the rise might be in individuals serving sentences. When an increase on such a scale final occurred 15 years in the past, ministers have been compelled to launch prisoners early to allow the jail system to manage. Whereas the chancellor is funding 18,000 new jail locations, solely a fraction are prone to be prepared on time. With the prevailing jail property nonetheless in fragile restoration after ill-considered austerity cuts, emergency measures can’t be dominated out.

Rob Allen

Avoiding such crises was one of many authentic functions of the Sentencing Council for England and Wales. It was arrange in 2010 to behave as a planning mechanism to reconcile jail capability with legal justice coverage. The thought was that its tips for courts would lead to extra constant, predictable and efficient sentencing. Many hoped that the council would dampen down the sentence inflation that had led to a doubling of the jail inhabitants within the 20 years to 2010. But right here we’re, 10 years later, getting ready to splash £4bn on but extra prisons.

A Transform Justice report revealed as we speak argues that because it began work in 2010, the council has completed little to stem a pattern which has seen rising proportions of offenders convicted of indictable and either-way offences going to jail – and for longer durations. Newest figures present the common custodial sentence size was the best within the decade at 19.5 months for all offences and 22 months for indictable offences. Greater than a 3rd of individuals convicted of theft and housebreaking offences went to jail final yr, in contrast with greater than 1 / 4 10 years in the past.  

How a lot of that is right down to the Sentencing Council? For many of the 200 offences coated in its 27 sentencing tips, the council has not aimed to vary ranges of sentencing. However its personal evaluations have discovered that the rules have really pushed up the going charge for housebreaking, theft, and a few sexual, violent and theft offences. In different offence varieties, tips have didn’t stabilise pre-existing upward traits in sentence ranges. It’s true that tips have decreased common severity for some drug offences and lower-level assaults. However on condition that making certain the effectiveness of sentencing was meant to be an essential job for the council, its total impression has been very disappointing.   

Jail numbers might have fallen barely over the past decade – and extra sharply through the Covid-19 disaster – however that’s as a result of fewer individuals are being sentenced within the courts relatively than courts going smooth. The full variety of convicted offenders fell from greater than 1.4m in 2009 to lower than 1.2m in 2019, down by 17%. For extra severe offences, the decline has been nearly 40%.   

Harsher sentencing can’t all be laid on the council’s door. It displays a cocktail of things: Court docket of Attraction judgments; a judicial tradition which worries extra about undue leniency than severity; and will increase in most penalties. Most of those are outdoors the council’s management. Nevertheless it ought to, on the very least, assess the impression of coverage and legislative proposals earlier than they’re launched. The council was a bystander in final yr’s so-called sentencing assessment and has performed no half this yr as the federal government set about giving impact to its manifesto assure of more durable sentencing for criminals.    

Earlier this yr the council consulted on its future priorities, and there may be a lot it ought to do inside its present remit with the intention to enhance its impression.  

A dispassionate overview of the entire vary of sentence ranges is sorely wanted, as is far better encouragement of using non-custodial sentences, together with restorative justice, rather than ineffective quick jail phrases. Virtually half of the individuals sentenced to jail within the 12 months to June have been serving phrases of six months or much less (62% within the case of ladies). As not too long ago as 2018, nearly 1,000 individuals have been in jail for shoplifting, and 25 for theft of a bicycle. Are custodial sentences actually unavoidable for all these individuals?

Custodial sentences shouldn’t be imposed except offending crosses the so-called custody threshold – so severe {that a} nice or neighborhood sentence is not going to do. The council has steadfastly refused to outline what the edge means. The intention of the check is to maintain jail as a punishment for essentially the most severe offences; so it’s time for the council to supply extra detailed tips to discourage courts from imposing it unnecessarily.

Past this, we’d like a extra basic debate about how the Sentencing Council can play a better function as an skilled physique within the improvement of more practical legislation, coverage and apply. In lots of areas of public coverage, impartial establishments have been established to tell authorities motion, and to forestall or reasonable undue political affect on authorized or apply developments.  The pandemic has centered consideration on the work of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. In fiscal coverage, rates of interest are set not by the Treasury however by an impartial physique of consultants within the Financial institution of England, whereas selections in regards to the funding of NHS therapies are made by the Nationwide Institute for Care Excellence. Do we’d like one thing related in legal justice? The Remodel Justice report argues that this sort of mannequin, which removes or at the very least insulates sentencing from the political fray, is value detailed consideration.

  • The Sentencing Council and Prison Justice: Main Position or Bit Half Participant? By Rob Allen is revealed by Remodel Justice