The decline in community sentences

A graphic look at the decline of the community sentence over the last decade.

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Hidden away in the government’s response to the Justice Committee follow-up report on Transforming Rehabilitation is a one line commitment to increase the use of community sentences:

“we plan to bring forward proposals for community penalties that offer an appropriate level of punishment, while tackling the underlying drivers of offending”.

This post seeks to put some context to this aspiration and shows that there is certainly plenty of potential for increasing the number of non-custodial punishments.

The total number of people sentenced in our courts has fallen consistently from 1,365,078 individuals in the year ending March 2009 to 1,191,782 people this March – a fall of 12.7%. Of course, most people are dealt with by a financial penalty (77.4% in the last year). However, the proportion dealt with by community sentence has almost halved from 14.2% in 2009 to just 7.8% this year.

Given the range of components that can be included in a community sentence – both punishments such as unpaid work and curfew conditions and  rehabilitative elements such as probation supervision and treatment requirements – most sentencers who decide against a community sentence will order some form of imprisonment, either suspended or immediate.

Remembering the 12.7% drop in the number of people sentenced in the last decade, my graphic below shows that suspended sentences because much more popular over much of the decade, although there was a big drop (22.5%) in the most recent year. The proportion of people sentenced to immediate custody also fell slightly from 7.3% of all sentences in the year ending March 2009 to 6.4% in the current year. However, the spectacular decline in community sentences is clear to see.

You can see the trend of the three sentencing options over time more clearly in the second graphic below.

It appears that the government has abandoned the commitment to curb the use of short prison sentences advocated by the previous Justice Secretary David Gauke. Sentences of 6 months or less actually comprised the majority of orders of immediate custody in the most recent year (43,399 out of 76,776 = 56.5%). If “credible” community sentences were targeted at this group, it would certainly be possible to turn round the decline in community sentences.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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