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Smarter sentencing is not harsher sentencing

Nina Champion, Dr. Laura Janes, Dr. Kate Paradine, Dr. Jonathan Bild

4 min read

The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill will see people convicted of more serious offences spending a lot longer in prison, but there is no evidence to support this. Instead, government should improve education and other rehabilitative opportunities in prisons.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill has hit the headlines for its proposals around the policing of protests, but the Bill also contains sweeping changes to how people are sentenced in England and Wales.

The government claims that the changes will increase public confidence, create safer communities, and reduce reoffending. However, there is a real risk that the Bill will fail on all three fronts unless changes are urgently made as it passes through Parliament.

While making some positive noises about diverting people away from the criminal justice system for lower-level offending, the Bill will see people convicted of more serious offences spending a lot longer in prison. The government claims this will protect the public. But the assumption that longer sentences will increase public safety is not backed up by evidence. Increasing sentence lengths may even be counterproductive.

The government claims the Bill increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. But Sentencing Council research has found that the public has limited knowledge of sentencing, and although they think sentencing is too lenient, this perception lessens when presented with scenarios and sentences based on real-life cases. In reality, prison sentences have increased steadily for the last three decades.

If government wants to improve outcomes for victims, it should ensure there is greater access to restorative justice

The only way to increase public confidence is to ensure we have a system that reduces reoffending. However, no evidence has been put forward to show these changes to sentencing will be effective. The only evidence cited by the government in official assessments of the changes suggests a negative impact, with an increasing prison population leading to more instability, self-harm and violence, as well as reducing access to rehabilitative opportunities.

The government also admits that longer sentences may increase the risk of family relationship breakdown, damaging mental health and increasing the risk of reoffending. And as the new Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board pointed out to MPs and peers last week, more time in custody “cements pro-criminal rather than pro-social identities and attitudes in children”, making them more likely to reoffend after release.

The government says that its plans to increase the proportion of time spent in custody, which would reduce the time spent being supervised by probation in the community, “should not affect rehabilitation adversely”. Yet it provides no evidence for this either. The government claims that increasing maximum sentences will deter people from committing crimes, but even justice minister Chris Philp MP admitted harsher sentencing has “limited or no general deterrent effect”. An official document assessing the impact of the Bill bluntly concludes that there is “limited evidence that the combined set of measures will deter offenders’ long term or reduce overall crime”. In truth, not even limited evidence has been provided.

If the government truly wishes to improve public confidence and reduce crime, it should use its resources to improve education and other rehabilitative opportunities in prisons, which inspection reports highlight are lacking, and in the community. If it wants to improve outcomes for victims, it should ensure there is greater access to restorative justice, a voluntary process where victims meet the person who committed the offence to explain the harm caused. Research shows restorative justice can improve victims’ wellbeing and satisfaction, as well as reduce reoffending.

For truly smarter sentencing, we need to focus on what works to cut crime. There is still time for the government to withdraw the detrimental clauses and instead include evidence-based measures that will help people turn away from crime and reach their full potential, reducing the number of victims and building the safer communities we all want.


Nina Champion is the Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance. Dr. Laura Janes is the Legal Directer at The Howard League for Penal Reform. Dr. Kate Paradine is the CEO of Women in Prison. Dr. Jonathan Bild is the Director of Operations at Sentencing Academy.

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