New Reforms for Prison Sentences

New Prison Sentencing Reforms
Legally reviewed by: Kevin Waddingham Updated: Criminal Defence

On the 16th October Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk announced fundamental changes to the justice system regarding prison sentences in an effort to keep dangerous offenders off the streets for longer while providing rehabilitation for lower risk offenders.

Some of the changes involve:

  • Serious offenders to stay locked up for the entire duration of their sentences, building on work to keep the most dangerous offenders in prison for longer.
  • Giving a chance to turn away from a life of crime to lowest-risk and first-time offenders.
  • Lord Chancellor outlines a vision for long-term changes to prisons and justice, keeping the public safer from crime.

Updates to Long-Term Prison Sentences

The government is taking action to keep those who pose the greatest danger to society locked up and off the streets. This includes ending the automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent offenders. Additionally, they government will be making whole life sentences the default sentences for the most heinous types of murder.

For the most serious offenders to serve longer sentences, the government must consider how to best use the prisons to ensure there are always enough spaces. Therefore, these reforms must also consider how to give the lowest risk offenders a greater chance of turning their life around, freeing up further spaces in prison. The fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened this issue, resulting in delays that affect criminal courts across the UK. As a result, waiting times are long for those remaining in custody awaiting trial as the courts face a growing backlog of cases.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) estimates that there were 87,744 people in prison as of 17th November 2023. This figure is up from 82,691 just 12 months ago. The useable operating capacity for prisons is 88,894. As a result, there are only 1,150 free prison spaces currently in England and Wales.

Issues with the Short-Term Prison Sentences

Despite the rate for reoffending falling by almost a quarter since 2010, reforms are needed to prevent those serving short-term prison sentences from becoming ‘trapped in a revolving prison door, cutting them off from work, housing, and family and further criminalising them with each spell inside.’

In a recent press release, the MOJ asserts that they ground their latest proposal in data. According to statistics, over half of individuals serving sentences of up to 12 months in prison end up committing another offense. Moreover, for those with sentences of six months or less, this percentage increases to 58%. To put this in perspective, the overall rate of reoffending stands at 25%.

Benefits of Reforming Short-Term Prison Sentences

Highlighting the advantages of restructuring short-term prison sentences, those on a suspended sentence with specific requirements experience significantly lower reoffending rates. For individuals on such a suspended sentence with requirements, the reoffending figure is 23%, while it increases to 38% for those on a suspended sentence without specific requirements. Comparatively, individuals serving a community order exhibit a reoffending rate of 34%. Therefore the rate of reoffending is much lower for those serving their short-term sentences outside of prison.

The lower nature of these percentages’ places further emphasis on the need to reform short-term prison sentences. A recent government press release states: ‘Instead of serving time in prison short-term offenders can be punished in the community, repaying their debt to society by cleaning up neighbourhoods and scrubbing graffiti off walls. By remaining in the community these offenders will also be able to better access the drug rehab, mental healthcare and other support that properly addresses the root causes of their offending.’ The aim of these changes is to give offenders drug rehab facilities, mental healthcare and other avenues of support that will help to address prevent reoffending.

Furthermore, the government announced plans to double the number of GPS tags available to the courts. By increasing the number of GPS tags available, the government hope to better equip the courts to manage offenders in the community. GPS tags can help ensure offenders go to work and have their freedom curtailed by monitoring with tough curfews to reduce reoffending.

Further Reforms and Updates

  • The government will be focusing on removing thousands of foreign prisoners by deporting them earlier and agreeing transfer agreements with other countries.
  • Legislating to permit holding prisoners in overseas prisons.
  • Reviewing incentives around early guilty pleas. This will save courts time and spare victims the need to give evidence in court.
  • Looking at options into tackling the injustice of the now abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence. Looking closely at how reducing the licence period would help restore greater proportionality to the IPP sentence.
  • The government will be putting £400m towards 800 new rapid deployment cells. Furthermore, the government will be putting £400m towards the refurbishment of 35,000 across the state to bring them up to modern standards.
  • £30m funding to allow the Prison Service to quickly identify and purchase land in 2024 for new prisons.

Assessing Prison Sentences on a Case-by-Case Basis

The Lord Chancellor emphasises that the court will assess each case on its own merits. He adds that, under the new law, individuals convicted of dangerous crimes, such as domestic violence and stalking, will not always receive a suspended sentence. If authorities deem the person facing conviction unsafe to be in society, they will most likely serve their sentence in prison.

Furthermore, judges and magistrates retain the authority to impose prison sentences of less than 12 months when warranted, particularly for repeat offenders or individuals unwilling to comply with the terms of their sentence. This includes actions such as violating curfews, removing a GPS tag, or breaking court orders to address the damage caused to neighbourhoods.

The Lord Chancellor adds “We want domestic abuse victims to know this government is on their side, so we will do everything possible to protect them from those who cause harm or threaten to do so.

“That’s why we are ensuring that judges retain full discretion to hand down prison sentences to domestic abusers―to give victims the confidence to rebuild their lives knowing their tormentors are safely behind bars.”

We have yet to see if the new prison sentencing reforms are effective. Nevertheless, the criminal justice profession would appreciate any positive influence it may exert in alleviating the prison population.

Get in Contact with Our Criminal Defence Solicitors

In conclusion, the recent reforms announced by Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk mark a significant shift in the UK’s criminal justice system, aiming to balance the need for public safety with rehabilitation for offenders. These changes, particularly in the realm of long-term and short-term prison sentences, highlight a commitment to addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour while ensuring that dangerous offenders remain incarcerated.

Cartwright King’s criminal defence solicitors keep informed on all the latest legal changes. Clients facing criminal charges will benefit from legal professionals who can navigate the nuances of these changes, ensuring the best possible outcomes for their cases.

Legal Disclaimer.

All advice is correct at time of publication.