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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Short sentences versus community orders

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Do offender characteristics affect the impact of short custodial sentences and court orders on reoffending?

New MoJ research

We all know that people sentenced to community orders have lower reoffending rates than those given short prison sentences.

But what sorts of offenders do better on community orders or worse on short prison sentences? How do community orders and suspended sentences compare?

This is the sort of question that a new (17 May 2018) analytical summary from the MoJ sets out to answer. Joseph Hillier and Aidan Mews analysed a series of datasets from 2008-2011 on adult offenders released from custodial sentences of under 12 months or who started a court order in those four years. It is important to remember that people sentenced to short periods of custody at this time received no supervision on release.

Key findings

The report examines whether impact on reoffending differs according to offenders’ age, ethnicity, gender, and mental health. It also provides further analysis on the reoffending impact of suspended sentence orders compared with similar cases where community orders were given, whether the impacts vary according to the number of previous offences, and the impacts of mental health and alcohol treatment requirements. They key findings were:

  • Reductions in reoffending were associated with the use of court orders as compared with short-term custody. These effects:
    • Were greater for people with larger numbers of previous offences. For people with no previous offences, there was no statistically significant difference between the reoffending associated with short-term custody and that associated with court orders.
    • Differed according to an offender’s age group, after controlling for the number of previous offences. The use of court orders was associated with relatively more benefit for those aged 18–20 and those over 50, and less benefit for those aged 21–29.
    • Differed according to identification of mental health issues, after controlling for the number of previous offences. The use of court orders was associated with more benefit for offenders with ‘significant’ psychiatric problems and those with current or pending psychiatric treatment.
    • Were similar across ethnic groups and for both males and females, after controlling for the number of previous offences.
  • For those with identified mental health issues, mental health treatment requirements attached to court orders were associated with significant reductions in reoffending where they were used, compared with similar cases where they were not. The reoffending rate was around 3.5 percentage points lower over a one-year follow-up period.
  • For those with identified alcohol use issues, alcohol treatment requirements were associated with similar or slightly lower reoffending where they were used compared with similar cases where they were not.
  • Suspended sentence orders were associated with a reduced rate of reoffending (over a one year follow-up period) of around 4 percentage points compared with similar cases where community orders were given, with a smaller impact over longer follow-up periods. Suspended sentence orders were associated with more benefit in reducing reoffending as age increased and less benefit as the number of previous offences increased.

Conclusions

This analysis shows that court orders have more impact on reducing reoffending (compared to short prison sentences) on those with more previous offences. It is unclear why this is the case, but it may be about the diminishing returns of the potential ‘short shock’ deterrence associated with imprisonment as offenders become more acclimatised to the criminal justice system. This is supported by the finding that suspended sentence orders (which carry the threat of custody) were also relatively more effective in reducing reoffending, as the number of previous offences decreased compared to similar cases where community orders were used. 

Interestingly,  there was no significant effect of ethnicity or gender when comparing custody with community orders or community orders with suspended sentences. Age, however, did seem to make a difference: the youngest and oldest age groupings benefited particularly from the use of court orders compared to short-term custody. However, the impact of suspended sentence orders in reducing reoffending compared with community orders generally increased with age.

Differences in impact were also found on the basis of mental health – those assessed as having significant psychiatric problems or current or pending psychiatric treatment benefited particularly from the use of court orders compared to short-term custody after controlling for the number of previous offences.
 
The impact of alcohol treatment requirements on reoffending was less pronounced with ATRs associated with similar or slightly lower reoffending compared to prison.
 
In my view, these findings give plenty of food for thought and makes me wonder, yet again, why mental health treatment requirements are so rarely used.
 
 
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One Response

  1. Interesting. But it fails to recognise that all statute laws are more or less defective. It takes decades, or centuries for the courts to improve them.
    Meanwhile millions are unjustly sentenced.
    No judge ir magistrate is required to keep account of the effectiveness of his/her sentencing, or justify his decisions to the public, who employs him/her. This is utterly disfraceful.
    Our CJS is arcane and does a very bad job. It also smugly thinks it is doing a good job. When it isn’t. Time for a big re-think.

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