When did an 8-month jail sentence become eight weeks?
Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce walked free yesterday after serving just a quarter of their prison sentences for perverting the course of justice.
Although they have been released, they will have to wear electronic ankle tags and be subject to curfews. But what will surprise most people is how little time they have spent behind bars.
Having been given eight months, both are out in just over eight weeks.
We have become accustomed to criminals being let out halfway through their sentences, but the fact that Huhne and Pryce have been sent home after serving a mere quarter of their time appears excessively lenient.
We can argue until the cows come home about whether or not they should have been sent down in the first place. Neither posed a threat to society.
Swapping speeding points will strike many as a relatively trivial offence.
But the courts take perverting the course of justice very seriously, so a custodial sentence was inevitable.
While their release seems premature, no useful purpose would have been served by keeping them both inside. But if eight weeks is considered sufficient punishment, why weren’t they sentenced to eight weeks, not eight months?
Their early release highlights Britain’s fraudulent sentencing policy. Few, if any, prisoners serve their full term. When we hear that someone has been given a four-year jail sentence, we know they will be out in half that time.
The prison authorities maintain that prisoners knowing they will be eligible for release halfway though their sentence gives them an incentive to behave. But that could also be addressed by setting both a minimum and a maximum term up front.
So, for instance, someone convicted of a crime deemed worthy of prison could be told they will serve a minimum of, say, two years after which they will be considered for parole, and a maximum of four.
If, for whatever reason, they don’t deserve to be freed — either because they have not been properly rehabilitated, or because they’ve thrown a screw off the main landing — they will have to serve the full term.
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That way everyone knows exactly where they stand. At the moment, the paying public and the victims of crime are being peddled a fiction.
Sentencing someone to, for example, six years in the certain knowledge that they will be out in three is deliberate deception designed to allow the courts and, more importantly, the politicians to pretend they are ‘tough’ on crime.
I’m not arguing necessarily for longer sentences across the board or for banging up more people, just honesty and transparency. It’s time to drop the pretence. For what it’s worth, I agree with the Howard League for Penal Reform that there are far too many people behind bars who simply shouldn’t be there.
A significant proportion of the prison population ought to be in mental institutions or secure rehab facilities.
Other, non-violent, offenders could be given community sentences, provided they are properly enforced. Curiously, far more people reoffend after being released from a short time in jail than after completing a community sentence.
Having said that, there are plenty of hardened criminals who undoubtedly should be locked away for longer. How often do we read of someone committing a violent crime soon after being released early from jail?
The former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple argued recently that in his experience longer sentences act as both a punishment and a deterrent.
Conversely, he says, short sentences serve neither purpose.
Since the Sixties, sentences have been watered down. When the death penalty was abolished, we were assured that life would mean life. Now, it can mean as little as seven years.
It was also disturbing to read recently that hundreds of thousands of crimes, including violent and sexual assaults, are being disposed of with cautions and ‘community resolution’ orders without ever coming anywhere near a court.
Huhne and Pryce have paid a heavy price for their transgressions, not just the shock of being sent to jail but also in terms of loss of reputation.
Mind you, in our post-shame society it probably won’t be long before Huhne is giving self-serving interviews, and no doubt Pryce will soon be popping up again reviewing the papers on Sky News.
Vindictive Vicky is also said to be planning to publish a book aimed at wreaking further revenge on her ex-husband. Let’s hope she reconsiders, if only for the sake of her children. Her trial was unedifying enough.
The pair deserved to lose their liberty but they’ve had their short, sharp shock and they’re unlikely to reoffend.
What is worrying is not that Pryce and Huhne are back on the streets. It’s the scary thought that others who do pose a genuine threat to the public are also being released excessively early.
And unlike the media circus surrounding Pryce and Huhne, we may not know who they are and where they are until it’s too late.