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1 May 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 8:33am

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.

By Harvey Redgrave

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.

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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.

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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.