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Short prison terms should be scrapped to tackle violence in jails, MPs say

The justice secretary wants ‘smart justice’ to focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending

The government must take a radical approach to sentencing if it is to avoid disaster as a result of overcrowded prisons, according to a new report by the justice select committee.

Sentences shorter than a year should be scrapped altogether, the report read, if the government is to tackle safety concerns within prisons in England and Wales.

Justice secretary David Gauke is calling the proposals “smart justice”.

Assaults and incidents of self-harm in prisons have reached record highs in recent years, which the committee warned was a “grave and worsening” situation.

Under the proposals, short custodial terms would be replaced by community orders.

The committee continued: “We need a serious open public debate about the criminal justice system, the role of prison and its affordability. We are pleased that the justice secretary and prisons minister have acknowledged this but regardless of the political climate it cannot just be a long-term aspiration.

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“There must be greater transparency so that everyone can understand the true costs and challenging nature of decisions which need to be made about public spending on prisons and other aspects of criminal justice.

“This should form the first step of the justice secretary’s ‘national conversation’. These issues cannot be hidden behind the prison gates any longer.”

Tory MP and committee chairman Bob Neill said the government must avoid “throwing money” at short-term fixes for the crisis deprives rehabilitative programmes “that could stem or reverse many of the problems” of much-needed funding – and that they will take a “crisis management approach”.

The prison population has nearly doubled over the past 25 years, reaching a peak of 82,417 last week. It is a crisis which requires a “fresh and decisive” response, the MPs said.

The committee report read: “We are now in the depths of an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives.”

The MPs want services which reduce reoffending – estimated to cost the government £15bn each year – to be boosted by the government in an attempt to keep people out of prison.

The prison population is shifting, they added, with more people behind bars for serious violent or sexual offences.

Gauke already announced that he is considering getting rid of prison terms of six months or less, with exceptions made for crimes of a violent or sexual nature.

A presumption against sentences of twelve months or less is set to be introduced in Scotland later this year.

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