Magistrates Association calls for reduction in the use of prison sentences under eight weeks

The MA has published a new position statement on the use of short prison sentences

Prison bars

The Magistrates Association is calling for new measures to be introduced to reduce the use of short prison sentences.

We are proposing that the Ministry of Justice should consider placing restrictions on the use of prison sentences of up to eight weeks, as long as robust and effective community alternatives to custody are universally available. This could have a significant impact on reducing reoffending rates, as evidence suggests that very short prison sentences are very disruptive to the employment, accommodation and caring responsibilities of an offender, but offer limited opportunities for rehabilitation.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice announced that it was considering abolishing prison sentences of less than six months. While this proposal has been backed in recent weeks by Justice Secretary David Gauke and the then Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, the Magistrates Association believes that it would not be practical for all prison sentences of up to six months to be abolished, warning that sentences of only a few weeks must be considered differently to those of up to six months. 

The MA is, however, proposing an alternative approach to reducing the use of very short prison sentences, by changing the law to put in place restrictions on when immediate custody of up to eight weeks can be ordered. Magistrates can already only order immediate custody when they decide it is unavoidable but to further reduce the use of short prison sentencers, sentencers could be required to give a community order instead of any prison sentence of under eight weeks apart from:

  • When an offender has breached an existing order or committed if an offence while on an existing order, or;
  • In exceptional circumstances, such as situations where the offender is only in the UK for a few weeks so could not engage with community options.

The Magistrates Association emphasises that those offenders given a community sentence as an alternative to custody must receive adequate support and monitoring, thus ensuring that breaches are dealt with promptly and appropriately. We call on the Ministry of Justice to ensure sentencers can be confident in alternatives to custody being available, effective and robustly managed before any proposed change in law.

John Bache JP, National Chair of the Magistrates Association, said:

‘If current provision of robust and effective community alternatives to custody could be guaranteed in all areas, this would increase sentencer confidence.

'Once this is in place, the MA would support restrictions being placed on the use of immediate custody to support the Ministry of Justice in its aims to reduce the use of short prison sentences.

'Sentencers must retain discretion to order immediate custody if existing orders have been breached, and there are no appropriate alternatives, but otherwise sentences of up to eight weeks should be restricted so that they are only available in the most exceptional circumstances.’

The Magistrates Association's full position statement on the use of short custodial sentences is available here.