HC Deb 12 February 1958 vol 582 cc399-401

3.39 p.m.

Sir George Benson (Chesterfield)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the imprisonment of first offenders. The purpose of this proposed small Bill is to amend Section 17 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948. The Section laid down that before a court might send an adolescent to prison it must first examine and consider all alternative methods. There was no limitation whatsoever of the power. There was merely the duty to consider alternative methods before the court imposed imprisonment.

The effect of the Section was spectacular. Instantaneously, it reduced the number of adolescents sent to prison by one-half, and for the last eight years the figure for imprisonment of adolescents has remained one-half of what it was before the Criminal Justice Act was passed. I am afraid that there can be no other deduction but that the courts were in the habit of passing sentences upon adolescents very carelessly.

The Bill I propose lays down that Section 17, as regards magistrates' courts, shall also apply to first offenders. Again, there is no limitation on the power of courts. The Bill merely stipulates that before sentencing a first offender to imprisonment a magistrates' court shall consider alternative methods. I put forward this suggestion some four years ago in a debate in this House on overcrowding in prisons. Since that date the proposal has been accepted by the Home Office Advisory Council and, also, I believe, by the Magistrates' Association.

There is a very great difference between adolescent offenders and adult first offenders. The success rate for adolescents is less than 50 per cent. The success rate for adult first offenders is over 80 per cent. I think that since the Bill proposes to deal with a class with so high a success rate the House is entitled to ask magistrates' courts to think twice before sending these people to prison.

There is one argument which I ought to meet. It is that if imprisonment is so effective in dealing with first offenders, would it not be advisable to leave well alone? The astonishing thing is that all types of sentence give exactly the same result in the case of first offenders —the success rate is always not less than 80 per cent.

This percentage is perhaps one of the most remarkable constants in social statistics. It seems to be valid both over time and in various countries. It turned up initially in the first really serious piece of research into the results of court sentences made by Professor Glueck, of the Massachusetts Reformatory, in 1923. Here, first offenders showed a success rate of 80 per cent. or better.

The next piece of research was produced by the Illinois Parole Board. I need hardly remind hon. Members that the State of Illinois contains Chicago, which has not got a particularly savoury record. Here again, however, the success rate for first offenders on parole, according to the report made to the Governor of Illinois in 1928 by the Parole Board, was again not less than 80 per cent.

In France, they have what is known as the suspended sentence, and here again the success rate appears to be 80 per cent. for first offenders. I am quoting from memory, and for France I cannot give chapter and verse. But when we come to England, to our own country, there is massive evidence to show that 80 per cent. is the minimum success rate, irrespective of the form of sentence the court imposes.

Perhaps the most remarkable evidence of the stability of this figure is that although in this period of full employment a sentence of imprisonment on first offenders gives, as I say, a success rate of not less than 80 per cent., in 1930, when there were 3 million unemployed, the success rate was even then 80 per cent. or over.

In the same unemployment period—in 1928 and again in 1932—the Metropolitan Police made perhaps the most massive investigation that has been made into the results of court treatment of first offenders. Those two researches covered about 35,000 people and included fines, probations, bindings over and imprisonment, and in every case, with one exception, the results were not less than 80 per cent. success. The one exception was in 1932, when persons put on probation showed a 77 per cent. success rate instead of 80 per cent. I do not think that one slight variation can be regarded as invalidating what appears to be a universal rule that 80 per cent. or more of first offenders will prove successful.

Here I make one point of explanation. The 80 per cent. is an average rate. Different classes of first offenders have different rates. For example, there is a different rate for the sexes. Women have a higher success rate than men. There is also a different rate for the adult age groups. Persons over 40 have a higher success rate than those in the 20s. Nevertheless, the average for all first offenders, irrespective of the sentence of the court, is not less than 80 per cent. In view of this, it seems to me that the House is entitled to ask the courts, before they send first offenders to prison, to think at least twice.

We shall not be encouraging recidivism, because the universal figures show that, whatever is done with a first offender, approximately the same results are achieved, but if we lay this limitation upon the courts we may be doing something which will help materially to solve the grave problem of overcrowding in our prisons today. I therefore respectfully ask the House to grant me leave to bring in this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir George Benson, Mr. Clement Davies, Mr. Younger, and Mr. Montgomery Hyde.