What went wrong with community sentences?

The rise and fall of community sentences

Last week (25 April 2017), Crest Advisory published a provocatively titled report:

Where did it all go wrong? A study into the use of community sentences in England and Wales

This is a high quality report, akin to a comprehensive academic research study, complete with a survey of magistrates, detailed data mining and clear analysis. It makes it clear that the drop in the use of community sentences for women which I recently blogged about is simply part of a much bigger trend which applies equally to offenders of all genders.

If you work in probation, I strongly recommend investing time in reading the report.

The report

The report sets the context by saying that with our overcrowded, unsafe and expensive prison system, we would expect increased use of community sentences:

The notion that community sentences can be a more effective, cheaper alternative to prison is supported by a strong body of evidence. At their best, sentences served in the community can offer a powerful tool for addressing the root causes of offending behaviour, reducing the rate at which an offender reoffends and thus lowering demand on the system overall.

Yet despite their obvious potential, community sentences are being used less than at any point over the last 15 years.

The report is a systematic attempt in over a decade to understand what lies behind this phenomenon and reveals some of the reasons for this loss of confidence.

Key trends in community sentences

The report presents a detailed picture of what has been happening to community sentences in the last 10 years:

  • The number of community orders has essentially halved over the past decade, with an increasingly sharp decline from 2011 onwards, whilst custody and fines have remained relatively stable. The rising use of suspended sentence orders has not offset
    this trend.
  • The use of community sentences has declined fastest for theft and drugs offences.
  • There appears to be little difference between the makeup of offenders on COs and SSOs, based on their harm and reoffending risk evaluations.
  • Unpaid work is typically the most common requirement commenced under a community sentence, and since its introduction in 2015, the RAR has become the second most common (for the current problems with RAR, see the probation inspectorate report here)
  • Delays are common between sentencing and commencing a requirement, and vary between regions and type of requirement
  • The majority (70%) of offenders undertaking a community sentence go on to complete their sentence, however:
    • 30% of community sentences fail for the committal of an additional offence, or for breach of sentence stipulations
    • reoffending rates have remained relatively flat over the past decade and vary between disposals: custody stands at 45% (rising to 60% for short custodial sentences); COs at 35%; and SSOs at 31% (which has decreased from 37% a decade ago)
    • reoffending performance varies between CRCs, with interim reoffending rates ranging from 26% to 43% for community sentences
    • prolific offenders (those with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions) make up an increasing proportion of those sentenced; for community the proportion has risen from 15% in 2005 to 25% in 2015.
    • 75% of offenders sentenced to immediate custody for an indictable offence in 2014 had previously served at least 1 community sentence

Key findings

The report argues that community sentences:

  • are implemented in a way that bears little resemblance to the evidence of what works: they are neither intensive, swift, nor punitive (the one point on which I differ from the Crest analysis is their interpretation of the evidence base that community sentences need to be punitive to be effective) enough to act as a proper deterrent. Most importantly, offenders are not held properly to account for complying with their sentence;
  • are failing to transform lives, acting as little more than a stepping stone on the path to prison: 35% of those sentenced to custody have received at least five previous community sentences;
  • have lost the confidence of magistrates: a new survey of magistrates commissioned for this report reveals that over a third of magistrates (37%) are not confident that community sentences are an effective alternative to custody, and two thirds (65%) are not confident that community sentences reduce crime. As one magistrate we interviewed put it: “It may be wonderful what is going on but we want to know what’s going on”.


The report comes to five main conclusions:

  1. The primary driver of declining confidence in community sentences, which relates to long term structural issues to do with the operation of the CJS.
  2. In particular, the lack of information accessed by magistrates (pre- and post-sentence) and the declining quality of advice pre-sentencing from probation seem to have been key factors.
  3. It is possible that the number of community sentences may have fallen due to a change in the cohort of offenders, in particular, with a rise in prolific offenders, but this is unlikely to have been the primary driver of changes in sentencing behaviour.
  4. These trends pre-date recent policy changes, such as TR, though TR is likely to exacerbate the problems. In particular, the split between CRCs and the NPS, and the structure of CRC contracts is in all likelihood going to reduce confidence even further.
  5. Longer term, the biggest barrier to confidence is likely to be the continuing evidence (and perception) of low effectiveness.


The report recommends eleven policy changes, to do with sentencing reform, the role of magistrates, the role of probation and justice devolution:

  1. A ‘Project Hope’ for England and Wales
  2. Greater flexibility for magistrates to administer innovative punishments tailored to the offender/offence
  3. Amend sentencing guidelines to introduce a presumption of intensive community orders for young adult offenders facing custodial sentences of 12 months or less in magistrates’ courts
  4. Amend sentencing guidelines to remove the assumption that suspended sentence orders are less onerous than community orders
  5. Extend the power to undertake regular court reviews for prolific offenders serving short custodial sentences and/or community orders to all magistrates’ courts
  6. Enhance magistrates’ training to improve their understanding of community sentences
  7. Improve the quality of pre-sentencing advice
  8. Provide feedback about the outcome of sentences to magistrates
  9. Support greater transparency of community sentences, particularly the nature of unpaid work
  10. Require a new target to ensure that the NPS allocates cases to the CRC on the same day as the sentencing, and that requirements are commenced the week afterwards (or at least no later than a month after sentencing for specialist requirements)
  11. Enable PCCs and mayors to co-commission offender management services locally


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