Lifestyle

Do long jail sentences stop crime? We ask the expert

Until recently, the subject of criminal punishment hasn’t been a massive concern for the public (putting aside that small demographic committed to a “hang ’em all!” approach). But in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, calls for misogyny to become a hate crime have gone from a whisper to a roar. That change would give judges the power to increase sentences when misogyny was found to be an aggravating factor in a crime. But would harsher sentences do much to stop such crimes happening? I asked Penelope Gibbs, former magistrate and founder of Transform Justice, a charity campaigning for a more effective justice system.

Did you hear about the Thai fraudster who was sentenced to jail for more than 13,000 years? I guess they needed a number to describe ‘throwing away the key’. Are long sentences becoming more common?
I don’t know about across the world, but I can tell you that in England and Wales sentences have been getting steadily longer over the past decade, by roughly 20%.

Is that because we’re somehow becoming more criminal?
Actually the crime survey for England and Wales, which asks people if they have been a victim of crime, shows the prevalence going down over the past decade.

Wait: if sentences are going up, and crime is going down, doesn’t that mean the job’s a good ’un?
No – there’s no evidence that increasing imprisonment reduces crime. However, restorative justice has delivered promising results. That’s where the person who committed the crime has to hear the victim, and has to apologise.

How are we quantifying effectiveness? Reoffending rates?
Exactly. Right now, sentences are going up, but reoffending rates aren’t going down.

Why are sentences getting longer?
Many reasons. In parliament, there has been bill after bill changing the minimum and maximum sentences for crimes. New Labour upped the minimum sentence for murder, which arguably nudged up those for other violent crimes. Then there are changes to the official sentencing guidelines, and the culture of courts and the judiciary. A punitive government changes the courts’ behaviour. Don’t forget, too, that deterrence is enshrined in the principles of sentencing. Judges will say: “I’m giving you X, firstly for rehabilitation and secondly for deterrence.” Even though there’s no evidence that longer sentences deter crime.

So I’m guessing making misogyny a hate crime wouldn’t achieve much?
I’ve not seen any good evidence that the hate crime system is reducing offences. If we want to stop misogynistic behaviour – which we know comes from childhood peers, education, family, society – we need to start there

But maybe putting misogyny into law is so victims feel heard.
I understand why women want the criminal justice system to be the answer. But it never is. Think back to the campaign about upskirting – a terrible thing to happen, I agree with it being prosecuted. But some would say there were already laws to deal with it. Did getting a specific law stop upskirting?

I’m surprised the party that always denies the existence of the ‘magic money tree’ would chuck public cash down the drain housing more prisoners. Who am I kidding? I am not surprised one smidge.
Politicians know it’s popular with the public. We’re in some sort of arms race where both the main political parties are seizing on higher prison sentences as the answer. Labour’s calling for higher sentences for rape. The government has already reserved funding for hundreds more prison places. Ultimately they think it’s a price worth paying.