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Staffordshire Commissioner calls for halt to short prison sentences during Covid-19 pandemic

Short prison sentences should be halted to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 and keep prison staff and communities safe, says Matthew Ellis, Staffordshire’s Commissioner for Police, Fire and Rescue and Crime.

Mr Ellis has joined a cross party coalition of 50 peers, police and crime commissioners, leading academics and charities to urge ministers to suspend short jail sentences during the pandemic.

In the letter to today’s Daily Telegraph, the 50 led by charity Revolving Doors warn that jailing criminals for non-violent offences under six months should be halted because of the risks to them and prison staff of “serious disease and death if infected with coronavirus.”

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,” they say.

Mr Ellis, who led a review into crime in prisons in the West Midlands last year, emphasised the importance of including robust analysis of the effectiveness of stopping short sentences, if it goes ahead because of the current situation.

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,’ he said.

The review Mr Ellis led on behalf of all West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioners made a strong recommendation that a multi-agency approach should be pursued to understand why short term sentences were so ineffective at preventing reoffending.

The Commissioner visited prisons throughout the region during the work. Staffordshire itself has 8 prisons – one of the highest number of prisons in a single county across the country.

Mr Ellis added:

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.’

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