Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

Community Sentences aren’t working

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Unfortunately I can’t find the actual report by the Centre for Crime and Justice which has been reported in the news this morning under the general headline of ‘community sentences aren’t working’. The main themes to come out of this report seem to be that they have no deterrent effect, breaches aren’t being dealt with effectively (i.e. toughly), and that the increased use of community sentences has had no effect on reducing the prison population. It all seems to be fairly obvious to me but I fear that the media is misreporting- as usual. Both the BBC and the Daily Mail title their reports using a quote from a probation officer which suggests that offenders are ‘laughing’ at community sentences. The BBC reports that offenders feel pleased when they receive a community sentence rather than a prison sentence. Community sentences are lower in the tariff than a custodial and therefore make less demands on one’s liberty- that is kind of the point of them isn’t it? So why shouldn’t they feel pleased?

I think that saying that community sentences have no deterrence factor is fairly banal. Deterrence theory has been fairly well discredited over the years. It is fairly well accepted that prison also has little power of deterrence- otherwise, why has knife crime, for instance, risen after a populist move to be tougher on people on carrying knives? If prison, the ultimate sanction, has no deterrence then why would community sentences?

The report also says that the use of suspended sentence orders have had no effect on the prison population. I’m not really surprised about that. When community service orders (CSO) were introduced in 1972 they also were intended to reduce the prison population but didn’t. In fact, what happened, was that sentencers began giving CSOs to people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone to prison. There was up-tariffing then and there is up-tariffing now. Maybe it all just goes to to show that making community punishments ‘sterner’ doesn’t work.

The number of people breaching community orders has also increased apparently- well, that’s not really a surprise considering probation officers have targets around compliance and enforcement. I’ve written about this before- the rise in breaches is probably because officers are being told to breach more and if they don’t, they get in trouble.

The reporting of this seems to discount the experience of offenders who were reported to have considerably different views on the matter to probation officers with one of them saying “It’s strict [the order] ain’t it? It’s strict, I have to see him [probation officer]. And if I break it I know what’s going to happen, straight back inside.”Credit to the BBC which does report this but no credit to the Daily Mail which doesn’t. I really believe that in order to have a really thorough understanding of the impact of different sentences on offending we need to look at it from all angles with offenders providing the most crucial angle. It may be, for example, that an offender breaches their order, gets given another one and then goes on to be fully rehabilitated and never offend again. If that offender had been sent to prison which is what the probation officers seem to be calling for it is unlikely that this would happen- but it might. There are so many variables it’s impossible to tell. The report doesn’t seem to (remember, I haven’t actually read it) have to looked into the effects of probation and this is where I think we should be looking if we want to improve the effectiveness of community sentences: theories of desistance amongst offenders on community orders.

As Richard Garside said on the Today Programme this morning, it is necessary for government to implement a ‘broad-based strategy from government based on trying to change the sentencing framework aimed at reducing tariffs.’ I couldn’t agree more- the chances of that happening, however, are slim to none especially as we have already seen the Tory party upping their call for law and order presumably in advance of general election.

Finally, Richard Garside said that offenders who serve a community order or suspended sentence order were effectively entering the penal system – and so were more likely to go on to receive a jail term in the future. This is true. There are two answers to this: the populist punitive answer would be to lock them up before they even get the chance to reoffend and prove that community sentences don’t work; the Scottish answer would be to reduce the chance of people getting involved with the penal system in the first place by, for example, increasing the age of criminal responsibility– well done Scotland!


Written by criminologyandstuff

March 2, 2009 at 11:40 am

Posted in criminal justice

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