PRISON sentences under six months will be abolished, the Justice Secretary announced.
David Gauke sparked a furious backlash from right-wing Tories by declaring “prison simply isn’t working”.
Laying out his vision for radically reforming the prison system he vowed to change the law if judges fail to phase out sentences of six months or less.
The move would keep about 50,000 offenders a year on the streets.
And signalling a major shift in the Conservative party’s approach to law and order, he called for a “national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times”.
Mr Gauke also refused to rule out going further and banning sentences of under a year.
He pledged to oversee a major shift in resources from prisons to rehabilitation outside of jail in the form of “robust” community orders.
The Justice chief acknowledged there should be some “closely defined exceptions” such as for violent and sexual crimes.
His comments provide the clearest indication yet of the Government’s intention to move away from the Tory mantra of “prison works”.
Just over a quarter of a million custodial sentences have been given to offenders for six months or less, while more than 300,000 sentences were for 12 months or less.
But nearly two thirds of those handed the punishments go on to commit a further crime within a year of being released.
It is frankly idiotic to suggest that prison sentences of six months or less should be abolished
Philip Davies, Tory MP
Shoplifting is the most common crime attracting sentences of under six months, with around 11,500 such cases a year.
Mr Gauke said: “For the offenders completing these short sentences whose lives are destabilised, and for society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working.
“That’s why there is a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, and put in their place, a robust community order regime.”
He said all options were being explored to bring about the shift, including legislation.
But his plans ignited a furious reaction from Tories, who branded them “bonkers” and warned it would destroy the party’s reputation as tough on crime.
Tory MP Philip Davies said: “It is frankly idiotic to suggest that prison sentences of six months or less should be abolished.
“In virtually every case the offender has been given community sentence after community sentence and they are only sent to prison because they have failed to stop their offending. So to give them community sentences instead is bonkers.
“This proposal will completely undermine any reputation we have for being the party of law and order and, more seriously, will create more unnecessary victims of crime.”
But penal reform campaigners welcomed the reforms.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, praised Mr Gauke’s “thoughtful and balanced” approach.
He said: “This speech rightly rejects the pointless language of tough versus soft, and calls for an informed debate about how to punish serious crime in ways that are both effective and humane.
“It deserves a non-partisan response, so that we can ultimately achieve a penal system of which the country can feel proud rather than ashamed.”
The Howard League group, which campaigns to reduce the prison population, welcomed Mr Gauke’s opposition to short sentencing but warned that his vision risks being “stymied by Brexit”.
Christina Marriott, head of the Revolving Doors Agency, said: “Our work shows short jail terms not only damage the lives of both offenders and their children, they drive reoffending, creating more crimes and more victims.
“They contribute to prison churn and chaos, making it harder to rehabilitate the people who do need to be there.”
Mr Gauke said Britain was jailing too many people – and had become an “international outlier” with its 82,509 prison population.
The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe and has doubled since the early 1990s.
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There are 139 people per 100,000 in jail in Britain, compared with Denmark’s 63, Germany’s 76, Italy’s 99 and France’s 104.
Mr Gauke also pledged a fresh crackdown on fraudsters enjoying their ill-gotten gains after spending time behind bars.
He said said he wanted to harness technology that would enable the authorities to monitor their lifestyles and activities so they see “a real shift in the standard of living a wealthy criminal can expect after prison”.
The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe[/caption]
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