Criminals spared jail under government reforms will have the “sharp sword of Damocles” over their heads, the Justice Secretary has declared.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Alex Chalk said the Ministry of Justice’s plans to spare offenders from serving sentences under one year would not be a soft option and would be restricted to those who might genuinely be rehabilitated by being punished in the community.
He said any offender who had broken community or any other court orders would lose their right to be considered under a presumption for non-custodial sentences under the terms of his new bill.
Any criminals spared jail and instead placed under a court order to carry out voluntary work, get treatment or go on anger management courses would immediately be sent to prison to serve their full suspended sentence even if they had completed 90 per cent of their community punishment, he said.
“You breach court orders at your peril. And if you do so, you can expect no mercy,” said Mr Chalk. “This is the way to get them off that escalating path of offending by holding this massive sharp sword of Damocles hanging over them and making it crystal clear that they have a very clear choice, comply or go to prison.”
The sentencing bill, laid before Parliament last week, will introduce a legal presumption against sentences under one year with offenders instead being punished in the community while subject to suspended jail terms.
Similar plans were put forward by former justice secretary David Gauke in 2020 although they went further by effectively abolishing sentences under one year. They were scrapped by Boris Johnson as the Conservatives hardened their stance with the abolition of early release for terrorist, violent and sexual offenders.
Reform of short sentences has now been spurred by the prison overcrowding crisis which saw the MoJ almost run out of space in jails and a growing body of research showing those serving short jail terms are twice as likely to reoffend as those handed suspended sentences.
Mr Chalk said technology in the form of electronic GPS and alcohol tags had also provided judges and magistrates with greater reassurance that probation officers could keep “much closer tabs” on offenders in the community including imposing “onerous” weekend curfews limiting movement for 20 out of 24 hours a day.
No softening on hard-line approach
With an election next year where law and order will feature prominently, ministers are at pains to show there is no softening on their hard-line approach to more serious criminals with the introduction of whole-life terms for sadistic and sexual killers, full-term jail sentences for rapists and a veto on the release of the worst criminals.
“This is a bill which has got protecting the public running through it like a stick of rock,” said Mr Chalk, citing the crackdowns on sadistic killers and rapists. By the same measure, he said the shorter sentencing reforms would protect the public by reducing reoffending.
He indicated that first-time offenders were the most likely beneficiaries of the presumption against short sentences, citing as an example a mother suffering a marriage breakdown, drinking “more than she should” who “who steals some toiletries from Boots”.
Class B drug offences
Rather than driving a “freight train through her life” by jailing her, the court could “properly” suspend the sentence “given the fact that she has responsibilities to her child, and that child stands to be very gravely adversely affected by a mother going into custody,” he said.
He suggested that the crimes most likely to be covered would be drink-driving and lower level class B drug offences rather than burglary or even theft. Repeat or prolific offenders would also be less likely to benefit as they would more likely have breached court orders that would bar them from a presumption to avoid jail, he added.
The bill provides “guidelines” rather than “tramlines” to judges who will ultimately decide who escapes jail. Mr Chalk refused to speculate on the numbers, but asked if it was hundreds or low thousands rather than the 37,000 eligible each year, he said: “There is no way on God’s green earth that this is some kind of situation where effectively there is no one under 12 months who is going to prison. There will be plenty who are still going to prison and we make no apology for that.”