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Overview of key points

England and Wales have a range of sentencing options to deal with offending behaviour. These include fines, cautions, community orders (CO), and imprisonment. Prison sentences may be suspended or result in immediate custody. For the purposes of this paper, a short prison sentence is one where a person is sentenced to non-suspended immediate custody for up to 12 months in prison.

The UK has the highest prison population per capita in Western Europe, and stakeholders argue that non-suspended imprisonment is overused. Campaigners have highlighted that imprisonment may disproportionately affect certain groups. Recent prison population projections (central estimate 94,000 by 2024) suggest there is a risk that there could be a crisis in prisons whereby basic operations (such as taking prisoners to and from cells) may be substantially impeded due to capacity issues.

In 2022, 5% of the sentenced prison population in England and Wales was serving a short immediate custodial prison sentence of less than 12-months. There has been a growing consensus that short prison sentences have limited effectiveness in reducing reoffending, or in achieving other goals such as rehabilitation, compared to community orders and suspended sentence orders. They may also have wider undesirable impacts on the prison service and for offenders particularly for women and young offenders.

Given this, stakeholders have questioned the cost-effectiveness of short prison sentences. Imprisonment is expensive and in 2021/2022 resource expenditure on prisons was approximately £47,000 per prisoner (£3.8 billion). Reoffending itself entails costs for victims and the public, with an estimated cost of around £18.1 billion per year (based on 2016 data).

Such concerns have created a drive towards finding sentences that can better achieve key sentencing aims which include punishment, public protection, and reducing reoffending. In recent years there have been various initiatives aimed at diverting low level offenders away from prison in ways that still punish them while reducing the risk of reoffending, such as specifically tailored community orders or out-of-court disposals.

The UK Government’s 2020 White Paper ‘A smarter approach to sentencing’ supported a reduction in short custodial sentences and a move towards probation and stronger community orders. Some stakeholders have suggested that policy interventions and emphasised alternative sentences may be helpful in reducing the use of short prison sentences. These include a presumption against short-term imprisonment, further detailed sentencing guidelines and an increased use of non-custodial sentences.

However, there are some limitations in the current evidence base, which makes it difficult to determine the factors involved in reoffending. Further research could help better understand the reasons for offending and to improve rehabilitative programmes.


POSTbriefs are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including: 

Professor Andrew Ashworth*

Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, University of Birmingham*

Nathan Case, Ministry of Justice*

David Dawson, Ministry of Justice*

Samatha Galisteo, Ministry of Justice*

Dr Jay Gormely, University of Glasgow*

Kristina Gray, Ministry of Justice*

Professor Melissa Hamilton, University of Surrey*

Daniel Hawksworth, Ministry of Justice*

Dr Rory Kelly, University College of London*

Aidan Mews, Ministry of Justice*

Helen Mills, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies*

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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