Written evidence from The Centre For Justice Innovation


About the centre for justice innovation


The Centre for Justice Innovation seek to build a justice system which all citizens believe is fair and effective. We champion practice innovation and evidence-led policy reform in the UK’s justice systems. We are a registered UK charity.




This submission focuses on two areas where the move to the new model of probation presents particular opportunities that are worth highlighting to the Committee. Firstly, it sets out the value of establishing a national voice for probation, and secondly it considers how the move to a new model of probation presents opportunities to reform community sentences.


1.       The need for a national voice for probation


The move to the new model of probation provides a natural opportunity to give probation a clear voice nationally, to the public, to parliament, and to the Ministry and Whitehall. Now that probation is moving to a more unified model, there is a unique opportunity to give it a voice to match.


The police, by dint of their size and public importance, can rely on their voice being heard through organisations like the Police Chiefs Council. However, relying, as the police do, on an association of senior leaders has not previously proved successful in probation.


A national strategic focus could be created emulating the model of the Youth Justice Board, an independent non-executive agency presided over by a prominent chairperson. A similar arrangement, with a small executive staff, created from existing HMPPS resources, could give probation an independent, national voice. This would separate probation and prisons, providing a much a clearer distinction between the two services, and helping reinforce their separate identities, focus and professional expertise.


This new Probation Board could be responsible for workforce development and could seek

partnership with academic and practice innovation organisations to evaluate and innovate on

new approaches to interventions and supervision.


2.       Making the most of the current opportunity to improve community sentences


The unification of the management of offenders within the National Probation Service and the imminent Sentencing White Paper are real opportunities for this Government to make community sentencing smarter. Below, we set out what it might look like to make the most of this opportunity.


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 (those that are less than 12 months), show that the proven reoffending rate of offenders on community sentences is consistently lower than for those who had served short-term prison sentences.[1] A 2019 study found that “sentencing offenders to short term custody with supervision on release was associated with higher proven reoffending than if they had instead received community orders and/or suspended sentence orders.” It also found that “the average number of re-offences per sentencing occasion was also higher following short term custodial sentences of less than 12 months than if a court order had instead been given (by around 65 re-offences more per 100 sentencing occasions).”[2]


Reforms to date


Over the last three decades, efforts to strengthen community sentences have often emphasised additional hours of unpaid work, months on an order or punishment. But research into the experience of probationers on community supervision suggests this focus has been too simplistic.[3] The weight of a community sentence (how much one has to do) and its duration (how long the sentence is) are only two dimensions of a community sentence. There is little evidence that increasing these dimensions will reduce re-offending or satisfy the desire from the public (or the media) for a more punitive approach.


The realities of how probationers experience community sentences


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.


Community sentences provide a mixture of punishment, reparation and rehabilitation. 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.[4] 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.


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


Principles for smarter community sentences


From our discussions with probation practitioners and judges over the past five years, a number of key principles have arisen which would make for smarter community sentences:


        Community sentences should be delivered swiftly: The way we deliver community sentences is often too slow. Practitioners intuitively know that getting probationers started on their orders and getting many of them over as swiftly as possible is what probationers desire, and yet often this fails to happen. Moreover, in our discussions with judges, we know that one of the frustrations they have with community sentences is when they hear of unpaid work not started, of rehabilitative services ordered and then delayed.

        Community sentences should be rehabilitative: If we want less crime, probationers should be helped to overcome the issues driving their offending. Research has consistently shown that there are a range of factors – like poverty, trauma and substance misuse - which make an individual more likely to offend in the first place and, then, to offend again,[5] and that many probationers have overlapping, complex needs. But the evidence suggests if we can identify these factors and address them, we have a real chance to reduce re-offending and make communities safer.[6]

        Community sentences should be reparative to communities and victims: Reparation – material and emotional - should be a central part of all community sentences, helping probationers understand the impact of their crimes on victims and local communities.

        Community sentences should be collaborative: Community sentences are not just for probation to deliver. They involve working with the court to better assess who should be receiving them in the first place and who and how offenders are breached if they do not comply. They involve working with the police, to ensure the public are kept safe. They involve working with treatment providers and other organisations to rehabilitate.

        Community sentences should be responsive: In our discussions with probation, judicial and court staff, we are constantly struck by how various rules, procedures and regulations constrain their ability to work in more individual and responsive ways with probationers. Our view is that we must liberate frontline practitioners to use their skills and training and exercise greater professional discretion.



September 2020


[1] Ministry of Justice (2013) Compendium of reoffending statistics and analysis 2010, Tables 3 and 5. Mews, Aidan et al. (2015). The impact of short custodial sentences, community orders and suspended sentence orders on re-offending, Ministry of Justice

[2] Ministry of Justice (2019) The impact of short custodial sentences, community orders and suspended

sentence orders on reoffending. Ministry of Justice. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/814

[3] McNeill, F. (2019) Pervasive Punishment: Making Sense of Mass Supervision. Emerald Publishing

[4] Ibid

[5] See: Ministry of Justice. (2013). Transforming Rehabilitation: a summary of evidence on reducing reoffending. Scottish Government. (2015).  What Works to Reduce Reoffending: A Summary of the Evidence. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/23718/evidence-reduce-reoffending.pdf and https://www2.gov.scot/resource/0047/00476574.pdf

[6] Ibid