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Ministers Express Concerns Over Drop in Community Sentences

Ministers Express Concerns Over Drop in Community Sentences

Government ministers have expressed concerns over a drop in the number of community sentences being handed down by judges and magistrates.

Justice secretary David Lidington has previously said that he is relying on the greater use of community sentences to help stabilise and reduce the increasing prison population – but the number of offenders given community sentences each year has fallen by almost half from 190,000 in 2008 to 102,000 in 2016.

One reason for the decline is concern among the judiciary about a partial privatisation of the probation service under which private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) monitor low and medium-risk offenders. The CRCs have in the past been criticised for supervising offenders with a short telephone call every six weeks.

Meanwhile, there has been a steady rise in the number of suspended sentences being handed out.

Community sentences: an answer to the rising prison population?

Ministry of Justice figures indicate that two-thirds of the rise in the prison population from 1993 to 2012 has been the result of an increase in the use of long custodial sentences. The MoJ’s statistics show that the average prison sentence is now roughly four months longer than it was 20 years ago.

Supporters of community sentences suggest that they are more effective at reducing crime, noting reoffending rates of approximately 36%, compared to 60% among those who have served short prison sentences.

Vicki Helyar-Cardwell, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, a coalition of more than 90 organisations committed to improving the criminal justice system, said:

“Community penalties remain at least 8% more effective than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending, which means fewer victims of crime.”

“We know that reoffending rates for short prison sentences are getting worse, whereas community sentences are improving. We need to strengthen community sentences through smarter use of drug treatment, reparation and more mental health support,” she said.

She added: “Community sanctions mean that offenders can begin to deal with issues such as drug and alcohol addictions and make reparation to their community, whilst maintaining links with their families and employment.”

Community sentences branded a failure by lobby group

However, data obtained by campaign group Centre for Crime Prevention suggests that community sentences are an ineffective deterrent, with 2013 figures showing that 123,675 offences were committed by 37,833 criminals in the year that followed the handing down of a community sentence.

Peter Cuthbertson, CCP director, said:

“Community sentences fail to protect the public and fail to stop reoffending. Prison works.”

He added: “These figures prove that letting thousands of criminals off with one community sentence after another is failing. Stiff prison sentences protect the public and have lower reoffending rates.”

Community sentences balance punishment with reform, says Nacro

But Graham Beech, director of social justice charity Nacro, said that people should not jump to conclusions from official figures on reoffending following community sentences.

He said: “These statistics may look dramatic but in reality don’t make a lot of sense. They don’t compare like for like crimes nor do they consider the stark failure of prison to rehabilitate people on short-term prison sentences.”

“What is clear from established academic research on the subject is that community sentences are over eight percentage points more effective at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences for similar offenders,” he said.

He added: “What the public and victims want is for crime to stop. Prison should be reserved for those who commit dangerous and serious offences and we must focus on community sentences that build on progress made, balancing punishment with reform in order to reduce crime in our communities.”

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