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  • Danny Shaw

Sentence nonsense

Is Priti Patel listening to her Ministers?

It’s a serious question because the Under Secretary of State at her department, Chris Philp, said something this week which appeared to be completely at odds with one of her policies.

On Monday, the Times reported that the Home Secretary was planning to increase the maximum prison sentence for people smugglers from 14 years to life.

The paper said it was part of a series of “deterrent measures” to be unveiled in the coming weeks, adding that a “Home Office source” believed it would “send a clear message” that smuggling people in small boats in the Channel would be considered to be on a par with attempted murder.

The story was later confirmed by Boris Johnson who said the Government would “ruthlessly stiffen” sentences in such cases.

However, the same day Philp was supplying an answer to a Parliamentary Question which, unwittingly it would seem, undermined the Government’s argument.

The Conservative MP, Alexander Stafford, had wanted to know about the potential merits of increasing the maximum prison sentence for the theft of a pet, following a recent spate of dog thefts.

As part of his inquiries, Stafford asked “what recent assessment” the Ministry of Justice had made of the “deterrent effect of sentences”.

The response from Philp, who holds a Ministerial post at the Ministry of Justice as well as at the Home Office, was revealing - and honest.

He said there was no “specific research” into longer sentencing for pet theft, but: “In the Criminal Justice System overall, the deterrent effect of sentence severity has received a high level of attention in wider research literature.

“The evidence is mixed, although harsher sentencing tends to be associated with limited or no general deterrent effect.”

So, tougher jail terms have little, if any, impact on deterring offenders. It's a finding that will come as no surprise to criminologists but has now been acknowledged by a Minister in a Government that believes the opposite is true.

Philp added that a deterrent effect was linked to “increases in the certainty of apprehension and punishment”. But that statement - that it's the fear of being caught which matters -provides little reassurance either given that the proportion of crimes resulting in a prosecution has plummeted in five years to just over 7%.

There are sometimes good reasons to increase the length of prison sentences, particularly for those who present a risk to other people. Reoffending rates are known to diminish with longer jail terms and it’s vital for public confidence that serious crimes are seen to be dealt with robustly and appropriately.

It may also be that people smugglers are currently treated too leniently; the proposal to raise the maximum jail term is likely to command widespread backing and pass through Parliament with little opposition.

But if deterrence is put forward as the rationale for such a legal change, or any other proposed extension to jail sentences for that matter, then the Government will struggle to find the evidence to support it.

Don’t take my word for it, it’s what the only Minister with roles in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice said, on the record, in Parliament, this week.

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