The Ministry of Justice’s long and eagerly awaited consultation on community sentences, ‘Punishment and Reform: effective community sentences’, has now come to a close. Stephen Moffatt, policy officer at the Criminal Justice Alliance, feels more could have been done
The document and preceding ministerial foreword set out to lay down proposals for radical reforms to the way community sentences operate, strongly claiming that victims and society have a right to expect that wrongdoing results in punishment.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) believes that there is the need to further promote the use of community sentences but the government is concerned at what they see as unacceptably high reoffending rates for these orders and a lack of public confidence in them as an effective punishment. They see as the ultimate goal of the consultation the introduction of proposals that will reduce crime and see fewer victims.
The use and continued promotion of community orders is to be strenuously endorsed. They have consistently proven to be more effective than short term custody at reducing reoffending, with the most recent rigorously tested research showing more than an 8 per cent difference. They minimise the disruption to offender’s lives and those dependant on them while allowing for positive interventions to address the vulnerabilities and support needs that are often the causes behind the criminal behaviour, all of which generally places offenders in a better position to desist from crime. It is a concern therefore that there has been a steady drop off in their usage over the past few years, with the most recent figures showing that 2011 saw an 8.4 per cent decrease in their usage when compared to corresponding figures for the previous year .
Unfortunately, while containing several proposals that provide the opportunity to progressively reform community sentences the appropriate balance between punishment and reform was not achieved within the consultation. The concern is that as a result not only will the changes fail to improve community confidence and re-offending rates they may actually reduce the existing levels of both, putting at risk the current positives that community sentences bring with them. In effect there could be a regression as a result of the proposals in place of the hoped for progression.
The increased focus on punishment include the suggestion that every community order must contain a sanction driven primarily by punishment and needless additions of driving and travel bans to the renamed intensive alternatives to custody orders, intensive community punishment (ICPs). Simply making sentences more punitive will not make them more effective in terms of re-offending as has been consistently evidenced in the past. It has the potential to deter individuals from engaging with elements of their order and increase the likelihood of non compliance.
There is a strong desire within the consultation to increase the use of electronic monitoring (EM). While this has many positive elements there is a concern that the required research has not yet been carried out and could lead to it being inappropriately targeted, as a report by her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation highlighted last week, and limiting its potential as a part of holistic and effective offender management.
There is the general concern that the proposals, included the increased use of EM and ICPs, could risk uptariffing individuals in the criminal justice system so that those who would usually have been dealt with through less more formal mechanisms are given inappropriate and disproportionate sentences.
More positively there seems to be an increased interest by the government in the case for pre sentence restorative justice. It has proven to lead to greater victim satisfaction, makes substantial financial savings and helps offenders develop a better sense of remorse over their criminal activities. Additionally it allows sentencers greater clarity over offenders’ intentions and opinions and has shown to lead to less punitive sanctions.
The government is actively attempting to increase the use of community sentences and this should be seen as a positive step. However, the way in which the government is planning to alter the orders, through an intensive punitive focus, and the failure to adequately highlight the need for positive rehabilitative and reparative elements will potentially jeopardise the current success and advantages of community orders. More could have been done to promote the process of desistance such as consistent offender managers who show trust in them and encouraging substantive over formal engagement with community orders.
The Criminal Justice Alliance’s response is available here.
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