Dear Lord Chief Justice
I am writing to let you know that the Home Affairs Committee has considered the draft guideline on Custody Plus. In the time available we have not been able to explore the implications of the draft guideline in great detail, but we have taken the opportunity of consulting a number of interested parties.
Our general conclusion is that the draft guideline is a useful document. However, we note that Custody Plus is a new sentence, not yet used by sentencers, and that the absence of any direct experience of how it operates in practice necessarily constrains our views.
Some concern was expressed by colleagues about how Custody Plus might work in practice, in particular that if it proves popular with sentencers it might have the undesirable effect of further inflating the prison population. In this respect we note the following
statement of Government policy made by a Minister last year:
"prison sentences should be reserved for serious, dangerous, and seriously persistent offenders. For other less serious offenders, tough community-based sentences offer a much better alternative than short custodial sentences which can be ineffective in preventing reoffending."
We support this view, and ask the Council to consider including this or a similar expression of principle in the body of the guideline, in order to emphasise the disadvantages of short-term imprisonment.
Furthermore, we emphasise the need for effective supervision of non-custodial sentences, and the need to generate public confidence in them.
We regret that Custody Plus does not include treatment options for drugs, alcohol, and mental health problems, as community orders do. This is not a matter for the guideline, but contributes to the Committee's concern that Custody Plus may be used as a "taste of custody" without the necessary back up provisions. We reiterate the comment in our report on Draft Sentencing Guidelines 1 and 2, published in November 2004, that -
"The success of these bold sentencing reforms depends on adequate funding of the Probation Service in all areas, and we expect the Government to take the necessary steps to ensure that this is secured." (Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, para 66)
Given the potential consequences of sentencing shifts arising from Custody Plus, we consider it a pity that a pilot scheme for the new sentence was not carried out on a local basis. We certainly consider it important that the operation of Custody Plus should be kept under systematic review from its inception.
We are concerned that breaches be dealt with effectively. We note the provisions for executive recall in Custody Plus cases, and reiterate that imprisonment should also be a possible consequence of breach of community orders.
We recommend that specific mention should be made in the guideline of the greater impact of custody on those with caring responsibilities; and the long distance from home for many women in custody.
Rt Hon John Denham
Chairman, Home Affairs Select Committee
16 May 2006