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Better use of community sentences would help cut crime and ease pressure on prisons

28 December 2023

The Justice and Home Affairs Committee publishes its report Cutting crime: better community sentences. The report examines the effectiveness of community orders at reducing reoffending and looks at best practices in the delivery of community sentences, as well as exploring some of the challenges that the Probation Service is facing.

The Committee finds that community sentences currently fall significantly short of their potential, but with the right investment, intensive community sentences can succeed where short prison sentences fail. 

The report 

Prisons are at a critical point, at 99% of their capacity and many of them in extremely poor condition. At the same time, sentences which keep offenders out of prison, while – importantly – addressing the underlying causes of much offending and preventing reoffending, are not being used to best effect. The use of community sentences has dropped dramatically. 

In its report, ‘Cutting crime: better community sentences’, the Committee sets out proposals for making the most of community sentences. 

Custody is sometimes necessary, but contrary to public perception, sentences served in the community can be demanding. They must include a punitive element, but they can succeed where short-term prison sentences fail. Community sentences can guide offenders away from crime and at the same time meet public safety needs.  

‘Treatment requirements’, for alcohol and drug use and for mental ill-health, tailored to the individual, are effective, but best practice for their use should be shared more widely and they need investment. 

The Probation Service, which supervises sentences, has faced many challenges over the last few years following institutional reorganisations, and is inevitably taking time to recover. Caseloads are unmanageable, there is a large shortfall in staff numbers, and the Service is struggling to produce the reports needed by the courts before they impose sentences. The recruitment and training of new probation staff should be sustained until vacancies are filled, so that the Probation Service is fully functional. 

Over the course of an eight-month inquiry, the Committee looked at best practices in sentencing and in how sentences are carried out. The wraparound support offered to some female offenders has proved its effectiveness and should be a model for probation services generally. 

The need for mental health and alcohol and drug treatment far exceeds the current rate of imposition of Community Sentence Treatment Requirements. 

Greater trust should be placed by the Probation Service in the expert and experienced third sector organisations which provide treatment. Community sentences, delivered locally, and which the court is confident will actually be available, are key.  

Chair’s comments 

Baroness Hamwee, Chair of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said: 

“The dots must be joined up. Prisons are at crisis point. Places are simply not available. Yet it is well-known that a short time in custody too often schools someone in how to be a ‘better’ criminal. The Government acknowledges all this.” 

“If the crisis is regarded as an opportunity to focus on how to make the best use of community orders, their potential can be realised, to the benefit of individual offenders and of the community.” 

“The use of community sentences has dropped dramatically over the last ten years. Used well, and with the necessary investment in the intensive treatment that is often needed, they can turn people’s lives around.” 

“We acknowledge the challenges the Government faces in the prison service, and welcome the attention on community sentences. Our report shows the contribution that these sentences can make, and that they are valuable in themselves—and that they need commitment from Government for their full potential to be realised.” 

Further information

Image: Adobe Stock by sergign