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Why are community sentences going out of fashion?

Just last November, the Lord Chief Justice called for more offenders to be sentenced to "tough, visible, alternatives" in the community, to reduce the numbers sent to prison.

Twenty years ago, youth justice reform was high on the political agenda. It even made the now infamous 1997 Labour pledge card. But in this year’s general election you can expect little in the way of discussion about criminal justice in any form. Despite recent rises in recorded serious violence, law and order issues are much less politically salient that they once were.

And yet the pressure on our prisons has barely been out of the news in recent months. According to the former Chief Inspector, our prisons, are "in their worst state for a decade", with violence, overcrowding and self-harm higher than at any point on record.

Policymakers have long understood that a key part of the solution to an overstretched prison system lies in a more effective regime of community sentences, able to secure the confidence of magistrates and the public. Just last November, the Lord Chief Justice called for more offenders to be sentenced to "tough, visible, alternatives" in the community, to reduce the numbers sent to prison.

The idea that community sentences can be both cheaper, and more effective, is supported by a strong body of evidence. At their best, they can offer a powerful tool for addressing the root causes of offending behaviour, reducing the rate at which an offender reoffends and lowering demand on the criminal justice system.

Yet despite their obvious potential, community sentences are being used less than at any point over the last 15 years. Since 2004, the numbers sentenced to so-called "community orders" (which make up the bulk of community sentences) have halved, whilst the numbers sentenced to custody have remained relatively stable. Not only is this fuelling unnecessary pressure on our prisons, it is impacting the financial viability of probation companies, who are struggling to cope with a lower than anticipated volume of paid work, despite rising caseloads.

Our research reveals some of the reasons for this decline. Chief amongst them is the fact that community sentences are implemented in a way that bears little resemblance to the evidence of what works. Community sentences are seen as neither tough, visible nor enforced. Offenders are not being held properly to account for complying with their sentence. The Probation Inspectorate (HMIP) has found that in a third of cases where the offender breached their order, “insufficient effort was made by the CRC responsible officer to re-engage them.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, community sentences do not command the confidence of magistrates. Our survey of magistrates commissioned for this report reveals that over a third (37 per cent) are not confident that community sentences are an effective alternative to custody, and two thirds (65 per cent) are not confident that community sentences reduce crime.

These problems point to the impact of long-term changes in how the criminal justice system operates; magistrates unable to access high quality advice and training to inform their sentencing decisions; the ability of probation providers to deliver innovative, personalised services that address the underlying cause of an offender’s behaviour; the capacity of the probation service and judges to hold offenders to account if they don’t comply with their sentence.

Whilst it is too early to be definitive, there is emerging evidence that the government’s flagship reform programme - Transforming Rehabilitation - will exacerbate the problems our research has identified. The splitting of probation providers has reduced dialogue between probation and the courts. Providers have a financial incentive to ignore breaches and lack both the means and levers to deliver innovative new services to prevent reoffending. There is also little doubt that the fiscal context, with funding having declined since 2010 and set to continue falling, will add to the pressures identified in this report.

Whilst there are no silver bullet solutions, there are some common sense things that the government could do straight away that would make a difference.

First, they should improve the volume and quality of information, training and advice provided to magistrates to guide their sentencing decisions. Magistrates can’t be expected to use community sentences if they don’t know what they are or how they work.

Second, they should require probation to provide regular feedback to magistrates post-sentence (so that they learn what works and what doesn’t) and enable magistrates to review sentences of prolific offenders and, if necessary, amend those sentences if that offender’s behaviour improves.

Third, the government should introduce a new presumption to sentence young adult offenders (18-25) to Intensive Community Orders (a form of community sentence that has been successfully piloted in Greater Manchester), rather than short custodial sentences.

Sentences in the community need to be improved if they are to have any meaningful impact, particularly when it comes to reoffending rates. This paper sets out a roadmap that could make community sentences the powerful crime prevention tool the system needs them to be; one that stops reoffending, keeps communities safe and reduces the pressure on our overstretched prisons.

Harvey Redgrave is the Director of Strategy and Insight at crime victim service Crest Advisory.


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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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