Proposals to strengthen community sentences and improve the probation service have been set out by the Ministry of Justice this year. Core aims include ensuring community sentences are a tough and credible punishment to tackle reoffending alongside modernising probation to cut crime.
In light of these plans, we ask a panel of experts: What should community sentences attempt to achieve?
Researching community sentences over the last decade, it is hard not to become cynical at the publication of ‘Punishment and reform: Effective community sentences’, another review containing proposals for community sentence reform. It follows a seemingly continuous stream of community sentence reviews over the last decade. But are we really any closer to understanding what all this community sentence reform is attempting to achieve?
This latest review describes its impetus as ‘protecting the public’, ensuring ‘payback to victims’ and making community sentences more ‘tough’, ‘effective’ and ‘credible’ options.
An alternative summation of what it is attempting to achieve might read, ‘Dear public, there are record numbers in prison and we predict the population will continue to grow over the coming period. This is expensive. Particularly when the department housing them is operating with a 23 per cent budget cut and frankly we don’t seem to be getting much out of this investment, given the high proportion of this population which end up back in prison. But we know you’re anxious about crime. We know it’s important when you’re next at the ballot box you feel a cross in our box will make you safer. Opening ourselves up to being labelled ‘soft on criminals’ risks electoral suicide. So we’re going to propose some reforms to community sentences, which we hope will slow down this predicted growth in prison numbers, but which can’t be accused of being soft options, such as extended work hour requirements and extra curfew restrictions.’
The successive attempts making a case for what community sentences are supposedly able to achieve have consistently used exaggerated rhetoric. An approach that has condemned this sanction to continued ‘failure’.
This community sentence review, like its predecessors, stores up problems for its political masters. In a few years community sentences will look unsuccessful if they are not fulfilling the overblown claims that are set out, and thus community sentences, and the government, will be open to fresh criticism (almost inevitably the ‘not effective enough’, ‘not tough enough’, ‘not credible enough’ type that are set out in the current review).
This lack of honest political brokerage regarding community sentences also keeps us further away from an informed public debate about what any sentencing proposal is able to achieve and from grasping the nettle of mismatched public expectations for community sentences that a legacy of rampant financial and political investment in the criminal justice system has left us with.
Helen Mills, Research Associate, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
Community sentences have been around for the best part of 100 years. Originally, the purpose of supervision was to advise, assist and befriend the offender. That role developed incrementally, and by the 1960s the philosophy behind community supervision was based on social work values. However, over the last 25 years that role has been eroded by successive governments, all preoccupied with being seen to be tough on offenders, and making the process of supervision by stealth more and more punitive. Community sentences are now more about containing the offender and enforcing the order. As a consequence, the number of breaches of non-compliance of the conditions of a parole licence has increased from 2,500 to over 16,500 in just 10 years. Similarly, the number of persons found in breach of a community penalty is now over 30 per cent.
The latest government proposal for yet more toughness, stressing 24-hour surveillance by GPS satellites and compulsory unpaid work for all offenders, is bound to result in more non-compliance, more breaches and more imprisonment. Any study of the last 30 years will show that the tougher the order and the more conditions that offenders have to meet, the higher the failure rate.
Most available research, for example, from the Universities of Belfast, Strathclyde and Sheffield, shows that the key to success with offenders is the relationship with the supervisor. A good relationship, empathy and understanding lead to rehabilitation. Other key factors include flexibility, supervisor discretion and investment in programmes that reduce the causes of crime and enhance employment opportunities.
The government should take note of this and spend its time examining such models, which will actually achieve what it has yearned for decades – less crime and therefore fewer victims and reduced costs.
Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary, NAPO
In the last 12 months for which statistics have been published, the criminal courts of England and Wales have imposed 862,000 fines for less serious offences, half of which were motoring offences; 179,000 community sentences for offences serious enough to justify them; 49,000 suspended and 102,000 immediate custodial sentences for offences so serious than no other sentence would have been appropriate.
A fine is punishment. It does nothing else. Custody is also punishment, but it protects the public and stops further offences for the duration of the imprisonment. Those who spend years in prison will receive education, training and help to change their thinking and behaviour. Those who spend under six months in prison will receive little or none of that.
Community sentences occupy an important role in between fines, which are only punishment, and short prison sentences, which are also little more than punishment. Some people might think that punishment automatically influences behaviour, but there is little evidence for this.
Community sentences consist of a basic community order, made by the court for up to three years, with a variety of requirements attached to it. Some of these are punitive, for example doing unpaid work, and some are rehabilitative, such as supervision by a probation office or a drugs testing and treatment requirement.
Courts choose the number and nature of requirements to punish and change offenders’ behaviour and thinking, so that their offending is reduced or stopped.
Suspended sentence orders are similar but are imposed in cases that are as serious as other custody cases, but where the court nevertheless has reasons to think that serving the sentence in the community would be better.
The rehabilitation element of community and suspended sentences is what makes them different and they do achieve their aims. Reoffending rates are lower than for sentences of imprisonment, although headline reoffending statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret. The Ministry of Justice has, however, concluded from analysis of matched pairs of offenders – identical in all respects except that one went to prison and the other had a community sentence – that community sentences lead to less reoffending than short prison sentences.
Peter Chapman, Chairman, Sentencing Committee, Magistrates’ Association
Prison should be a place of absolute last resort in our justice system, only used when offending is so serious or violent that the courts cannot impose a community sentence. Community sentences require proper investment and strong, consistent political backing for public and court confidence to increase and be sustained. Tough-sounding penal policies will grab headlines, but, if you’re serious about getting people to behave responsibly and determined to cut crime even further, then there’s no substitute for intensive supervision of offenders by well-trained professionals in the community.
Balanced research, comparing similar offenders and similar offences, shows that community sentences are now outperforming short prison sentences and are almost 10 per cent more effective in reducing reoffending rates. This is increasingly recognised by the public. In an ICM poll commissioned one month after the riots last summer, 76 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed thought unpaid community work was effective at preventing crime and disorder. Just under two-thirds (65 per cent) felt a prison sentence was effective.
Community payback successfully combines rigour and restrictions on liberty with reparation and rehabilitation. Schemes such as the impressive intensive alternative to custody run by probation and police in Manchester, and intensive offender management in Avon and Somerset, continue to cut crime. Youth conferencing has successfully placed restorative justice at the heart of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland, and there is scope for mainstreaming its use throughout the justice system as a whole.
It makes social and economic sense to capitalise on these successes. The best way to do so is to identify the elements that work particularly well: intensive supervision, community payback, restorative justice, developing personal responsibility, and dealing with housing, employment, addictions and mental health. The worst approach would be to load extra punitive requirements on the cart, like extended curfews or complex, additional restrictions, which are almost bound to lead to an increase in breach of license requirements, particularly by young people, and the expensive failure of their ending up in prison instead of going straight in the community.
Juliet Lyon, Director, Prison Reform Trust
Community sentences need to be demanding, while simultaneously working effectively to reduce the likelihood of reoffending and the level of crime in society. The most impressive aspect of effective community sentences is their ability to rehabilitate offenders and turn them away from a lifestyle of law breaking, thereby reducing the number of victims. Not only can they deliver real reductions in reoffending, but they also reduce crime at a fraction of the cost of sending people to prison. Any moves towards effective community sentencing have the potential to deliver substantial savings to the public purse in the longer term.
A national inquiry, commissioned by Make Justice Work, found that community sentences must attract the confidence of victims of crime and the local community. While rehabilitation is integral, victims and the wider public must be confident that community sentences are both demanding and effective, and have an element of punishment, but critically such sentences should also confront the drivers of offenders’ criminal behaviour. This means that during community sentences time should be spent addressing the causes of low-level crime in order to help offenders move towards a more stable, productive and crime-free life.
Effective community sentences should also see the judiciary being informed about the progress offenders are making. Magistrates must be fully informed about the various options for community sentences in their area and the public must also be engaged, to help improve their understanding as to the role such sentences can play in making local communities safer. Those responsible for running each programme must have a duty to ensure the local judiciary is regularly informed about outcomes and effectiveness.
Without effective community sentences, the government will not meet its commitment to create a criminal justice system that delivers not only a reduction in crime but also at a lower cost to the taxpayer.
Roma Hooper, Director, Make Justice Work
There are 87,165 people currently in prison. All but around 50 of them will be released. It is vitally important that we find a way of preventing those who leave prison ending up back behind bars in a costly, destructive cycle to victims, the taxpayer and wider society.
St Giles Trust aims to break this cycle. We are a London-based charity with a long track record of working in prisons and in the community helping ex-offenders successfully resettle. A cornerstone of our work is using trained, reformed ex-offenders – those who have been there and done it – to help our clients make the same journey.
Around one-third of the staff at St Giles Trust are ex-offenders and many of them came into contact with us in prison. Our Peer Advice Project trains serving prisoners to become skilled, professional advice workers able to provide much needed support in custody. The benefits of this are two-way: the so-called Peer Advisors increase their own skills and employability through an accredited qualification, and their clients receive a credible, trusted service from someone who really understands where they are coming from. Through this, both are assisted along their road to resettlement.
We currently provide this project in prisons across the country. For many of the trainees, it is the first opportunity they have had to gain a meaningful qualification. They become agents of change by inspiring others to turn their lives around and get a buzz from helping other people.
After prison, we often put their skills and experiences to use through employing ex-Peer Advisors as caseworkers, offering support to people leaving prison. The need is great – homelessness, financial difficulties, substance misuse and mental health problems all figure widely amongst prison leavers. Many need intensive support to prevent a swift return to prison.
As we have developed our work further, it has become clear that there are some specialist areas that need more targeted services. We developed our first project working with young offenders in 2006. Led by an inspirational ex-gang member, it has grown from helping gang members in Southwark turn their lives around to become a near pan-London project in the coming months.
Prevention is better and cheaper than cure. Having a parent in prison increases the likelihood of children drifting into crime themselves. We aim to break this inter-generational cycle by offering intensive support to families caught up in the criminal justice system. An exciting new project will help highly disadvantaged families in two of London’s most deprived boroughs – Southwark and Tower Hamlets – access employment, support and move towards independent, trouble-free lives.
Women in prison are some of the most socially excluded, vulnerable women in society. Our call centre in HMP Send is the first ever confidential phone helpline offering support to women serving in other prisons connected to it. Those returning to London after their sentences can then be linked in with our community-based services offer resettlement support women.
Helping break these cycles requires patience and persistence alongside a willingness to take bold and radical new approaches. However, the benefits of safer communities, fewer victims and more people able to contribute positively are a win win for everyone.
Rob Owen, Chief Executive, St Giles Trust
To read the full article visit the Public Service website.