Scrap short sentences and save millions

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Scrapping short-term prison sentences in Lewisham alone could save the country £8.7 million a year, a think tank has found.

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 594 offenders were released into the borough in 2009/10, having served prison sentences of less than 12 months. The average cost to the state was £14,710 per offender.

The findings, released last week, came as justice secretary Kenneth Clarke announced plans to reduce the prison population by 3,000 in three years.

Lewisham has been the national test case for an in-depth study into offender populations. Using new data on those released from prison and returning to live in the borough, the institute found “potentially very significant savings to the public purse, if we reform the sentencing framework so that more people are given community sentences and fewer are sent to prison.”

According to the IPPR findings, based on data obtained from Lewisham Council, community sentences cost on average 12 times less than prison sentences. Reoffending rates of those given community sentences are 14% lower than those released from custody.

A Green Paper released by the justice department last week set out aims to bring down the 60 per cent reoffending rate among short-term prisoners.

Nick Pearce, IPPR director, welcomed the proposed reforms.

“Prison doesn’t work for many offenders – because a lack of rehabilitation schemes in prisons mean they are more likely to reoffend on release. Well-designed alternatives to prison for less-serious offenders have been shown to work and they are much less costly.”

Justice secretary Ken Clarke has faced criticism from within his own party over his plans to send fewer offenders to prison, amid media reports of a plot to unseat him from his cabinet.

Tess Lanning, the IPPR researcher behind the Lewisham study, defended the proposed reforms.

“Significant numbers of low-risk, petty and habitual offenders serve repeated short spells in prison every year, at great expense to the public purse,” she said.

“Fear of crime always outstrips the reality, and cost alone will not convince people to ignore their gut instinct in the historically fraught area of criminal justice. But Clarke’s rehabilitation revolution has the potential to deliver reductions in re-offending as well as delivering value for money.”

Ms Lanning said that the IPPR would be completing its research in Lewisham in the new year. She hopes to consult public opinion in Lewisham, on perceptions of community and prison sentencing. The full report will be released in March.

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