The value of community sentences
A new report from the Centre for Justice Innovation argues that effective community sentences are a vital part of a justice system in which crime is proportionately punished. We have long-established evidence that community sentences reduce re-offending more than short custodial sentences.
The Centre argues that it is time to move away from the clichés of the past about tough or soft justice. We need smarter community sentences, which gives probation practitioners the powers, the freedom and the flexibility to do their jobs, and ensure that victims and communities who suffer from crime have more of a voice to see reparation done.
Community sentences play a vital role in keeping the public safe. There is considerable evidence that
community sentences are an effective means of reducing re-offending. Previous studies by the Ministry
of Justice in England and Wales, which control for the differences in the offender characteristics of
those on community sentences and those receiving short prison sentences show that the proven reoffending rate of offenders on community sentences is consistently lower than for those who had served short-term prison sentences.
However, the probation inspectorate has highlighted that quality of the supervision of community sentences has deteriorated over the past decade. Moreover, there are fewer community sentences being given out by courts. There has been a 46% decrease in the number of community sentences in England and Wales over the past ten years (see my chart below). CJI research has attributed this fall, in part, to a deteriorating relationship between courts and probation caused by a number of reforms in the past six years, most notably the split of probation, the under-investment in probation by the CRCs, and the disruptions caused by court closures and court service efficiency reforms.
Community sentences provide proportionate punishment for lower level offending through restrictions
of liberty like curfews and electronic monitoring. They can provide reparation through things like unpaid
work and restorative justice. They can also address the underlying issues behind offending, like drug
addiction, through supervised community drug treatment.
Yet these purposes of punishment, reparation and rehabilitation are not clean and separable: in
practice, community sentences are a mixture of all three. Probationers can often feel that parts of
community sentences that are intended to be rehabilitative are intrusive, even painful, while others
experience ‘punitive’ sanctions such as unpaid work as motivating and even enjoyable. It is also worth
remembering, for example, that individuals serving a community sentence can experience additional
pains, such as restrictions on their ability to travel abroad, or the impact on their lives of a criminal
record on their employment. These punishments, which often get forgotten in discussions about “the
toughness” of community sentences, can often be experienced as far greater hardships than the terms
of the court order itself.
This means that the reality of community sentences as experienced by probationers is often different
from what is intended by judges and lawmakers, and what is expected and imagined by the public.
Moreover, probationers are not a homogenous group: community sentences are given to a wide
spectrum of individuals, from affluent motorists who repeatedly speed to homeless people with
complex substance abuse and mental health needs. Strengthening community sentences, therefore,
requires us to grapple with the complex realities of how probation functions in practice.
Smarter community sentences
The Centre argues the unification of the management of offenders within the National Probation Service and the Sentencing White Paper (published today) are real opportunities for this Government to make community sentencing smarter. The report makes six specific recommendations urging the government to create smarter community sentences by:
- Improving the delivery of unpaid work by giving victims and communities a stronger voice in choosing what work is completed so they can see that justice is done, and by delivering standalone unpaid work orders swiftly, so probationers get the punishment done and can move on with their lives, and so judges can see their rulings carried out.
- Improving the delivery of supervision by working briskly with low-risk probationers, thereby freeing up probation to both deliver high-quality community sentences and to work with police in the management of probationers who pose a higher risk of re-offending, through a reinvigorated Integrated Offender Management (IOM) strategy.
- Improving rehabilitation so that people have the best shot at turning their lives around, by increasing the overall level of funding available for drug and mental health treatment for probationers in the community in the next Spending Review.
- Improving information to victims about community sentences via the court reform programme so victims are informed about what is being done in their case.
- Improving tagging of probationers by giving probation officers powers to flexibly vary the monitoring of tags without having to go back to court and by giving victims of domestic abuse a voice in setting the restrictions on perpetrators to better guarantee their safety and the safety of their children.
- Improving collaboration between the court and probation to divert vulnerable offenders away from court where necessary, to use judges to monitor repeat offenders and be more responsive to their behaviour, and to change the enforcement system so it responds more swiftly to failure and better rewards compliance.