Staffordshire’s police, crime and fire commissioner Matthew Ellis has joined calls to scrap shorter sentences to help stem the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.
Mr Ellis was one of 50 peers, crime commissioners and leader academics to pen a letter to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice and Chair of the Sentencing Council asking them to scrap sentences under six months for non-violent or non-sexual offences.
The campaign is being led by charity Revolving Doors which says it wants to stop shorter sentences to help to limit the ‘churn’ of people going into custody during the UK lockdown.
It comes after prisoners have died in a number of facilities across the country including HMP Sudbury in Derbyshire and Altcourse in Merseyside.
More than 100 prisoners across the United Kingdom have tested positive for Covid-19.
Last year Mr Ellis led research suggesting scrapping short-term prison sentences completely would have a positive impact on reforming criminals.
He said: “There are practical reasons during the current pandemic to reduce pressure on our prison service by releasing low-risk, non-violent individuals serving short sentences.
“If that happens, we must also ensure that a robust study is in place to examine the outcomes for all individuals released. It will help inform the on-going debate as to the effectiveness, or not, of short term custody in prison.
“Our study last year across the prison estate in the West Midlands suggested, far from reforming individuals, short stays in prison make it more likely individuals become entrenched in more serious criminality than they were actually imprisoned for in the first place.
“If the current circumstances lead to a temporary halt in short prison sentences, I think it’s vital that we capture that data so it can be considered for potentially longer-term measures in the future.”
Revolving Doors predicts around 2,000 people will serve a prison sentence of three months during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, posing a risk of infection to prisoners and staff.
It says around 44,000 people – around 50 per cent of those jailed – were handed a sentence of six months or less in 2019.
In its letter, Revolving Doors says: “Unless urgent action is taken, this rapid churn of people could lead to more deaths in prison, increase staff shortages and make our prisons unmanageable.
“In these extraordinary times keeping non-violent and non-sexual offenders out of prison is the sensible thing to do to save lives.”
The Staffordshire Police Federation – which represents rank-and-file officers – says the court system should be left to decide the fate of people arrested for minor offences.
Chairman Phil Jones said: “Officers collate evidence and present that to the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute on behalf of the country and every crime has a victim – it is then on the court to give the appropriate sentence.
“While the impact of coronavirus is not lost on me, it does not reduce the risk these offenders will pose to the public.
“A number of low level offenders serving short jail sentences will be those where the community options have already failed. And every crime, even shoplifting, which costs the economy billions has a victim.”