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The Effectiveness of Sentencing Options
Research by Dr Melissa Hamilton for the Sentencing Academy compares reoffending rates for custody, suspended sentences and community sentences.

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Call for longer follow-up periods to measure reoffending

Yesterday (6 January 2020) the Sentencing Academy published a new report by Dr Melissa Hamilton (Reader in Law and Criminal Justice, School of Law, University of Surrey) examining the research findings on the effectiveness, particularly in terms of reducing re-offending, of three key sentencing disposals: immediate imprisonment, suspended sentence orders and community orders.

Who are the Sentencing Academy?

The Sentencing Academy, which is funded by the Dawes Trust, is a research and engagement charitable incorporated organisation dedicated to developing expert and public understanding of sentencing in England and Wales. It encourages the Government to implement effective sentencing practices and informs public debate about sentencing, acting as a bridge between those with expert knowledge of sentencing, the public, and policy makers.

Key findings

Reducing re-offending is one of five key sentencing objectives in England and Wales. Courts employ a range of sentences, from discharges to imprisonment. This paper summarises findings from the latest research exploring the relative effectiveness of the principal sanctions for more serious offending: immediate imprisonment, suspended sentence orders and community orders.

In recent years, researchers have evaluated the relative effectiveness of these different sanctions by comparing the re-offending rates of those who have served a sentence of immediate imprisonment to those who served instead a community order or suspended sentence order.

Comparing re-offending rates associated with different sanctions is challenging because high risk offenders are more likely to be sentenced to custody. Dr Hamilton argues that this may explain why short sentences of imprisonment are associated with higher re-offending rates than community orders and suspended sentence orders.

However, recent research by the Ministry of Justice and other agencies compared re-offending rates for immediate imprisonment, suspended sentence orders and community orders, having first controlled for other explanatory factors. Re-offending rates for offenders sentenced to short terms of immediate imprisonment were higher than rates for offenders sentenced to either a community order or a suspended sentence order. 

The research picture was made rather more complex when the the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 (implemented on 1 February 2015) introduced a requirement for anyone sentenced to a short prison sentence (< 12 months) to received a compulsory period of  post-release probation supervision. This raised the possibility that the supervisory component of a short prison sentence might affect re-offending rates. In 2019 Eaton & Mews investigated re-offending patterns with a new cohort of adult offenders whose short custodial sentences included post-release supervision in a study which matched comparison groups on 150 factors. Dr Hamilton’s table (reproduced below) shows that even when accounting for other factors, offending rates are approximately 4% higher for those incarcerated compared to those placed on suspended sentence orders or community orders. Interestingly, the research also showed that reoffending rates were about 4% higher for people placed on community orders as opposed to suspended sentences.


Dr Hamilton notes that these results are consistent with earlier studies. Short custodial sentences, even with supervision upon release, were associated with higher re-offending rates (about 4% higher) than community orders or SSOs. Although not shown in the table, these results occurred whether the custodial sentences were less than three, six, or 12 months.

It is not possible to determine whether the introduction of the supervision requirement for short custodial sentences had any impact on re-offending rates by comparing results with previous studies because of changes made by the Ministry of Justice to its data collection processes as well as other changes on offender management practices. 

As with any reputable research study, Dr Hamilton concludes that more research is needed to determine whether the type of sentence is related to re-offending rates by gender and ethnicity and to determine how different sentences meet the criminogenic needs of offenders and how they improve their lives more generally.

She also recommends that research should use longer follow-up periods to better evaluate the impact of sentences on long-term desistance.


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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