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Everything you need to know about non-custodial sentences
Parliamentary briefing on the policy consideration of non-custodial sentences.

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.

Last week (27 January 2020) POST published an interesting briefing on the policy considerations of non-custodial sentences.

The briefing is carefully prepared and was reviewed by a number of key government departments and prestigious criminologists.

The briefing is organised in a logical fashion. Starts by setting out the range of  Before looking at sentencing trends with a differentiation of the sentences passed on adults and young people as well as BAME people and women.
The briefing moves on to detailed review of the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences, looking at the five key purposes of sentencing set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003:

  1. Punishment of offenders
  2. Reduction of crime
  3. CAP reform and rehabilitation
  4. Protection of the public
  5. Reparation to victim(s)

The briefing goes on to examine the evidence-based for the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. I have reproduced this section from the briefing below.

Reducing reoffending

Sentencing can seek to reduce crime in various ways, such as deterring others from offending. However, research typically focusses on whether sentences reduce reoffending. Data from 2017 (latest available data) indicate that between 29–32% of convicted adults and 36–44% of convicted young people are proven to have reoffended within one year of completing their sentence.

 Four international reviews comparing reoffending rates for custodial and non-custodial sentences report mixed findings. In most (but not all) cases reoffending rates were lower for non-custodial sentences. A 2007 review of over 100 studies globally also indicates that non-custodial sentences are associated with lower reoffending. Probation and community orders (including rehabilitation treatments) showed lower reoffending rates than custodial sentences. However, even when an intervention reduced reoffending in one location, it did not always result in a reduction when implemented elsewhere.

When looking at reoffending data, there is a lack of clear evidence on which interventions are effective at reducing reoffending, how these should be implemented, and for which offender groups the interventions should be used. There are also issues with comparing people receiving custodial and non-custodial sentences. This is because the characteristics of the two populations (such as sex, age and offending history) are different. There are also differences in how studies measure reoffending. For example, some look at charge or conviction rates while others survey people with past convictions on subsequent offences. 

In 2019, the MoJ compared the reoffending rates for people given short custodial sentences, SSOs and community orders. They matched various characteristics associated with reoffending across the three groups to ensure that the groups were not vastly different. The analysis found that short custodial sentences were associated with higher reoffending rates by similar individuals when compared with SSOs and community orders. Analysis by the MoJ in 2014 also highlighted that community orders reduced reoffending more than other types of non-custodial sentences


Policy considerations

Many readers will be familiar with these findings. However, for me, the real value of the briefing was a reminder that sentencing policy is concerned with more issues than just the most effective approach to reducing reoffending.

The briefing concludes by looking at three key issues which affect sentencing policy:

  1. The impact on the prison population
  2. Public opinion
  3. Costs and resources

Prison population

Increasing the use of non-custodial sentences is unlikely to significantly reduce the size of the prison population due to other contributory factors (such as sentence length). Some stakeholders note, though, that using community orders instead of short custodial sentences could reduce the high turnover of people in the prison system (referred to as ‘churn’) and reduce the associated costs. Research also suggests that community orders are often used for less serious crimes over time. If community orders were used for more serious crimes and/or for less serious crimes, their number would increase. This could result in unintended outcomes. For example, more people receiving community orders may result in more breaches of these orders. As a breach can result in a custodial sentence, this could lead to an increase in the prison population.

Public opinion

In an online survey of 2,000 people in England and Wales, around 70% of the respondents felt that sentences are too lenient. This belief is often reinforced by policies that put greater emphasis on imprisonment. This is despite evidence suggesting that more severe sentences do not act as a better deterrent against crime. Research suggests that there is a lack of public understanding surrounding non-custodial sentences. When the public is presented with real-life scenarios, their feeling that sentences are too lenient tends to lessen.

There are also public concerns about the effectiveness of community orders in maintaining safety. Changes and advancements in the use of technology may reduce these concerns. For example, improved application of electronic monitoring together with community order requirements may monitor behaviour more effectively. Advances in algorithms may also increase the accuracy of predicting the risk of individuals reoffending in the community

Cost and resources

Non-custodial sentences cost less than custodial sentences. For example, in 2017/18, the average cost of custody was £37,543 per prisoner (not including costs after release, such as probation). The cost for a community order in 2016/17 (the latest available data) was between £2,500–£4,000 per person. Costs and resources vary by sentence type, with some using fewer resources (such as curfews) and some requiring greater use of trained staff time (such as restorative justice). There are likely to be limits to how many community orders can be administered by the National Probation Service because delivering them would require more trained staff and increased funding.


This is a valuable resource for those seeking to advance arguments about the futility of short prison sentences and the effectiveness of community alternatives. Like the Audit Office, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is a strictly impartial organisation which means that it is harder for people to quibble with the evidence-based that it assembles.

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