The government has been urged to move away from the old clichés of tough and soft justice and focus more on making community sentences ahead of a sentencing white paper due to be published shortly.
The Centre for Justice Innovation says in its latest report that evidence clearly shows community sentences reduce re-offending more than short custodial sentences. However, there has been a 46% decline in their use over the past 10 years in England and Wales. Those advocating for short custodial sentences as opposed to community ones ‘are, in short, recommending that communities and victims suffer more from crime, not less’.
The centre believes the forthcoming white paper and ongoing work to reform the probation system provide the government with real opportunities to reform community sentencing, and highlights successul initiatives in other jurisdictions.
Describing unpaid work as the ‘backbone’ of community sentences, the report cites 2016 inspectorate findings that 35% of probationers had not started their unpaid work within two weeks of being sentenced. The centre says reforms in Scotland to unpaid work within their Community Payback Orders have focused on improving the speed with which placements are commenced and completed. The report recommends ‘short, swift’ unpaid work orders and empowering courts to set time limits.
The ministry and probation service should shorten the overall length of community sentences given to low-risk offenders. This would free up time for probation staff to concentrate on supervising higher-risk groups. The report says the ministry could learn lessons from Northern Ireland’s Enhanced Combination Order, which includes psychological assessments in respect of mental health issues and family support work. The offending rate of ECO participants in the six months following sentence was 17.3% compared to a 57.7% re-offending rate in the six months prior to sentencing.
Probation officers should be given powers over electronic tag monitoring, including the ability to vary hours. The report says in the Netherlands, the private sector provides monitoring equipment but public sector agencies are responsible for installation, maintenance and decision-making.
A smarter approach to tagging would enable victims to have a say on restrictions. In the US, GPS tagging technology has been used to give domestic violence victims more control over their own safety.
The centre, which has supported the expansion of family drug and alcohol courts, also suggests the government implement a problem-solving suspended sentence for those with substance misuse issues as an alternative to longer prison sentences. It says Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US actively involve the courts in efforts to strengthen the accountability of community sentences.
Under the new suspended sentence, probationers would be required to comply with a ‘demanding’ order of treatment, supervision, monitoring and reparation. The same judge would regularly review progress. Non-compliance would result in prison.
The report concludes: ‘We believe it is time to reform community sentences. In doing so, we need to move away from the clichés of the past about tough or soft justice.’