A presumption against “super short” jail sentences should be considered to reduce reoffending and the numbers of inmates in our prisons, according to the Shadow Justice Secretary.

Richard Burgon, Labour’s MP for Leeds East and a former trade union lawyer, believes England and Wales should consider taking Scotland’s lead, where there is a presumption against giving offenders who would be jailed for three months or less prison sentences.

In an interview at his parliamentary office in Westminster last month, he said: “We want to see less people in prison, we want to see less crimes being committed.

“We want to see tough community sentences as an alternative to super short sentences where people are in jails for just a number of weeks. For example, a quarter of the women in the female estate are in prison for around two weeks because they’re sentenced to a month or less. We want to see a change to that.

“I do think we need to look at ending the presumption of incarceration for what would be super short sentences.”

England and Wales has the highest rate of incarceration in western Europe with 83,600 prisoners currently behind bars.

Of those, only 59 are serving a whole life sentence and can expect never to be released.

“The key function of a justice system is to keep society safe,” Mr Burgon said, which requires a “mature discussion” about the function of prison.

“Most people who go into prison come out and live next door to me and you and we don’t want people going down a cycle of reoffending, a revolving door where they’re in and out of prison all the time. Not only is the cost great financially to the state, the cost is also great to society.”

According to the latest statistics published by the Ministry of Justice, between January and March 2016, 48.7% of adults released from prison committed another crime within a year. The reoffending rate for those given a community or suspended prison sentence was 33.4%. 

“The rate for those released from short sentences (less than 12 months) has been consistently higher compared to those released from longer sentences,” it said. “Adults who served sentences of less than 12 months reoffended at a rate of 64.6%, compared to 29.9% for those who served determinate sentences of 12 months or more.”

In 2016, 68,000 people went sent to prison in England and Wales – 71% of whom had committed a non-violent crime, with 47% of these sentenced to serve six months or less, according to figures compiled by the Prison Reform Trust. The majority of women were in prison for a non-violent offence and 70% of them were serving sentences of six months or less.

Yet, despite this, the use of community sentences has nearly halved since 2006.

A lack of confidence in such sentences by judges and magistrates is often given as the reason. A lack of resources for community services to support offenders as an alternative to prison, poor performing private community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) who are responsible for administering community sentences, as well as a generally risk-averse and punitive political and social climate must surely also play their part.


Although a large part of the Ministry of Justice’s work is, ultimately, about keeping society safe, it has suffered the deepest cuts of any Government department in recent years.

“The Government thinks there are no votes in justice so it doesn’t turn its mind to trying to sort it out,” Mr Burgon said.

“The justice system is a broken system. You can’t do justice on the cheap and too often it’s been put in a silos by the Government.”

In November, the Treasury announced another £600m cut from the Ministry of Justice’s budget, reducing its spending from £6.6 billion in 2017-18 to £6 billion in 2019-20 – a real terms reduction of 40% since 2010-11.

An “agenda of privatisation and cuts has had consequences”, the Shadow Justice Secretary said.

As well as prisons that are now in a “state of emergency”, the “disastrous privatisation” of probation; legal aid cuts that have eroded one of the country’s fundamental democratic pillars, access to justice; disproportional representation of black and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system; and an over-representation of white, upper-class males in the judiciary are all challenges facing the UK’s justice system, he said.

The case of the ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys – who the High Court ruled last week must remain in prison while the Parole Board conducts a “fresh determination” into his release – had demonstrated that the Government “doesn’t care sufficiently about victims”.

The privatisation of criminal justice is a particular sticking point for Mr Burgon.

Under a Labour Government, no new private prisons would be commissioned and any contracts for the 14 prisons currently run by the private sector (of the total 121 prisons in England and Wales) would not be renewed, he said.

“I believe that it’s immoral for profit to be made from the incarceration of human beings. It’s also an economic point and one of efficiency as well. These private companies aren’t doing a good job.

“HMP Liverpool named and shamed Amey for the way it wasn’t delivering on its prison maintenance contract. The Sodexo-run prison Peterborough is the first women’s prison in Britain [in many years] to be inspected and the outcome it that it’s not a safe place to be and there’s a company making profit out of that which isn’t acceptable. 

“There are some things which it’s only appropriate for the state to deliver and I think the state should be responsible for justice. It has a special responsibility, not only for those incarcerated, but to keep citizens safe in general and if the justice system is failing, then the system is failing to keep wider society safe.

“There’s been much talk that if John Worboys was released, he’d be in [approved probation accommodation] and the Government has just outsourced the night-watch on that. It’s just not an appropriate area for profit to be made from.

“As it stands, there’s a greater proportion of prisoners in Britain who are in private sector prisons than there are in the United States. That’s a huge shock.”


In his first prisons speech as Justice Secretary last month, David Gauke said the UK’s jails had to “get the basics right”, mentioning the need to urgently crackdown on ‘drugs, phones, drones and gangs’ ahead of rehabilitation. 

For Mr Burgon, “this idea that the explosion in violence and suicides in our prisons in recent years is due to drugs, mobile phones and gangs is just a real over-simplification”.

“Mobile phones are not new technology and drugs have always existed, or for a long time, in the prison system,” he told me.

“They’re blaming new psychoactive substances [such as Spice] and they’re playing a role, but this idea that they’re a key driver of violence in our prisons is just an excuse.

“The key driver for violence in our prisons is the political decision by the Government to cut the number of prison officers so severely since 2010 thinking that prisons are ‘out of sight and out of mind’ and no one really cares about it. It’s the cuts and under-staffing, and these things are linked. How can we expect prisons to be able to rid themselves of new psychoactive substances, drug abuse, mobile phones being used for criminal enterprise and the rest of it when there’s less officers on shift checking for these things?

“The Government wants to try to undo the damage they’ve caused and I welcome that but ‘back to basics’ is just a slogan.

“Everyone knows that the objective of a prison has to be to make sure it’s an ordered place where people aren’t in their cells 23 hours a day, where prison officers aren’t being attacked. It’s almost just rhetoric to say ‘we want to see that turned around’. Well, of course, everyone does.”


In September, the Scottish Government announced plans to extend its legal system’s presumption against imposing prison sentences of less than three months to prison sentences of less than 12 months.

Aimed at reducing reoffending, the policy’s premise is that prison should be used primarily for serious offenders or those cases involving public safety issues, and that community justice services and support should be funded in a bid to address the underlying causes of crime.

According to statistics published by the Scottish Government in 2017, 57% of those sentenced to six months or less in prison are reconvicted within a year, with 39% of those ending up back inside. 

Mr Burgon believes the policy should be considered for England and Wales.

“In Scotland their presumption is that if the sentence would be three months or less that person wouldn’t get a custodial sentence, although the judge, if they see fit, can give a custodial sentence,” he said.

“Lord Thomas, the former lord chief justice of England and Wales, was talking about – and these are his words – “tough and I mean tough” community sentences as an alternative to incarceration.

“Tough community sentences as an alternative will cost the public purse less and can actually relieve some of the pressure on the prison system which is probably leading to disorder, more drug abuse, violence, leading to the failure to rehabilitate.

“What I found interesting in Scotland is their intention is that the public and communities can suggest projects that need working on that people doing community sentences can help with.

“We don’t mean a ‘light touch’ community sentence, we mean something whereby it’s a challenge and it actually gets people in the habit of regularly doing productive things so there’s actually some order and structure in their lives, which can only be good to reduce reoffending and help protect society.

“And if you’ve got somebody who committed a non-violent offence who would have been on a super short sentence doing a serious community sentence instead, it engages them into society in a way they might not have been before and also means members of the local community see them not as the demons or devils on the front of the newspaper, but someone who’s trying to turn their life around.”

A Labour Government would take a “smart justice” approach by working with other departments, such as education and housing, to tackle failings attributed to the justice system more holistically. The number of children in care who end up in prison is one example of why this needs to be the case, he said.

In terms of prisons re-establishing their stability in the short-term, more staff and the retention of experienced staff is key, Mr Burgon added.

But, despite the Government’s pledge to recruit 2,500 new prison officers by the end of the year, a written answer to parliament last week revealed that 6,213 prison staff have left the service in the past two years – just over 1,000 of them having not even stayed for a year. 

When it comes to probation, the supervision of offenders released from prison and on community sentences must be brought “back-in house to put reducing reoffending as the priority, not making a profit” and prison and probation had to be seen as “two sides of the same coin”.

“Most people have never had any interaction with the probation system, but in each parliamentary constituency in the UK, there’s 400 people under the care of probation,” Mr Burgon said. “Making sure their lives are turned around, making sure they don’t reoffend is a big issue for everybody.”


But, how do we tackle his somewhat problematic belief that politicians consider there to be “no votes” in justice?

“We need to have the opportunity to speak to the public in more detail about how the prison system works and doesn’t work,” Mr Burgon told me.

“I think most people, who themselves have no direct interaction with the prison system, assume that every single person in prison is in there for a violent crime, which isn’t the case. They presume that every single person is in there for a long time, which isn’t the case.

“37,000 people a year are sentenced to three months or less in our prison system and it’s in the interests of every citizen personally – apart from those who live in the richest, gated communities – for the justice system to work because most people who are going to prison will come out and do we want them coming out with serious drug addictions that they didn’t have when they went in, more likely to commit more crimes than when they went in?

“We need to understand that a successful justice system is a system which successfully protects society. For too long there’s been this simplified discourse where politicians are just trying to act tough on prisoners and not making the connection between the people in the prison system and everything from anti-social behaviour to serious violent crime in society.”

He acknowledged that it was a challenge to convey some of the seemingly counter-intuitive thinking about criminal justice to the public.

But, he added: “It requires a mixture of bold journalism and politicians who aren’t afraid to enter into a debate and try and lead public opinion, rather than just follow what the newspapers say.

“One of the problems is that the only cases that reach the attention of the public are cases which, by their definition, are non-representative, i.e. the most serious and heinous crimes. The majority of people, thank goodness, who end up in the criminal justice system aren’t like John Worboys or Peter Sutcliffe.

“I think many people would be surprised at the fact that there’s people in prison for not paying their tv license or council tax, for stealing from supermarkets, people in prison basically who aren’t very well and are just problematic to the local community and end up in and out of the prison system.

“Lots of people would be surprised about that but it’s no surprise that they would be surprised because where would they find out about this?”

[Main photo credit: creative commons license]

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