Magistrates would also welcome the opportunity to monitor offenders after sentence

How can we promote the use of community sentences as an alternative to harmful short term custody?

Posted on 28 Feb in

The Centre welcomes the recent call by the Secretary of State to cut the use of short custodial sentences. These short sentences are costly, harmful and do little to reduce reoffending. However, for this to be achieved, we will need to significantly increase the use of community sentences, which in many cases represent the only viable alternative. We asked a panel of leading experts in the field what they think needs to happen to make this possible.
To achieve a large-scale shift, we need a presumption against short-term sentences
Revolving Doors Agency campaign Shortsighted has made the impactful case for government action to curb short prison sentences – a policy now championed by the Justice Secretary.

To achieve large-scale shift from short jail terms to community sentences we need a new presumption against the use of short custodial sentences of less than six months.

The vast majority of the public think that people with drug or alcohol addictions belong in treatment programmes not prison. 70% of MPs support the introduction of a new presumption against short sentences of less than 6 months for non-violent offences.

Alongside this, strengthen community sentences to deal more effectively with problematic drug or alcohol use and mental ill-health. However, there is no value in continuing with the failed policy of short sentences while we wait. Clear direction from government should be the catalyst for action across the system. In Scotland the presumption against prison terms of less than 3 months has reduced use of short jail terms by 40% and supported significant drops in crime.

Vicki Cardwell, Deputy Chief Executive, Revolving Doors Agency
Women’s centres provide a better alternative to custody for female offenders

Its about dealing with your reoffending and what the problem is, instead of just getting sentenced and doing your sentence and being released. This is trying to get to the root of the problem….going to prison isn’t the answer.” That’s the verdict of one woman we spoke to, on the support she received from a women’s centre as part of her community sentence. CJI’s report Renewing Trust comes hard on the heels of Broken Trust – PRT’s analysis of the rising number of women recalled to prison since the ill-fated Transforming Rehabilitation reforms.  It provides further evidence of the damage done by short prison sentences (it’s ripped our family apart), compounded by poor post-custody support. The government declared an aim of its Female Offender Strategy is “to reduce female prison places and provide more options in the community”.  Six months on, the stars may be aligning for a decisive turn away from prison as a panacea.

Dr Jenny Earle, Transforming Lives Programme Director, Prison Reform Trust. For more on current issues in Women’s Imprisonment, take a look at the recent Westminster Hall Debate
We need a new narrative for community sentences

We need to develop an accurate and fulsome narrative which explains how community sentences can effectively change people’s lives and prevent reoffending by rehabilitating and resettling people who have offended. The narrative needs to explain the research that shows community sentences have better outcomes than short prison sentences to the public. Outcomes for the individuals themselves, but perhaps more importantly, outcomes for their children, for their families, and for their communities who will suffer less harm as a result.  The narrative should include demonstrating through video and case study practical examples and stories of how people’s lives have been changed and positive outcomes have been achieved. We need to initiate discussion, debate and dialogue through social media campaigns, the use of traditional media, and targeted events about the effectiveness of community sentences.

Dr Geraldine O’Hare, Director of Rehabilitation, Probation Board of Northern Ireland
Courts need better knowledge of the content and outcomes of community sentences

If courts are to be encouraged to use community sentences instead of short terms of custody, it is crucial that they have a good working knowledge of the likely content and outcomes of community-based options. The court arena has been described as a ‘shop window’ for probation services: it is here that they can advertise and explain what is on offer in the community, and market the virtues of alternatives to custody in suitable cases. Several recent studies and reports have noted that since the implementation of Transforming Rehabilitation, the ‘shop window’ has become somewhat opaque, such that neither sentencers, nor probation staff who service the courts, has a clear view of contemporary community sentences – not least the new Rehabilitation Activity Requirement, the content of which is determined post-sentence. It is therefore crucial, if sentencers are to increase their use of alternatives to custody, that solutions to the problem of the ‘opaque window’ are found.

Dr Gwen Robinson, Reader in Criminal Justice, University of Sheffield. For more of Gwen’s research on probation in court, see her 2017 and 2018 articles in the Probation Journal.
A real alternative to custody

Magistrates recognise that short term custody only fulfils one of the five purposes of sentencing: punishment.  The other four purposes (reduction of crime; reform and rehabilitation; protection of the public; reparation) are fulfilled very temporarily, if at all.

Magistrates need a REAL alternative to custody.

  • Robust – more than an occasional phone call
  • Effective – trialled and demonstrated to address the issues
  • Available – regardless of the offender’s address
  • Logical – tailored to the specific requirements of the offender

Magistrates would also welcome the opportunity to monitor offenders after sentence, in order to encourage good performance and demonstrate that our sentences can be effective.

We believe that improved resourcing of community sentences would make a very real difference in reducing the need for short custodial sentences and would ultimately result in a considerable financial saving.

John Bache JP, National Chair, Magistrates Association
Toward a smarter justice system

If we want to keep the public safer, reducing the use of short prison sentences needs to fit within a smarter justice framework, premised on providing the right disposal at the right time. A smarter justice system would provide quick and summary interventions, including direct victim reparation, following arrest for low-level offences that don’t need to go to court.  A smarter justice system would provide shorter but swifter community sentences, which combine punishment and help. A smarter justice system would place responsibility on courts to problem-solve, overseeing and supervising those cusp of custody cases which currently face short and counter-productive prison sentences.  The hopeful thing is that all the building blocks for that smarter justice system are out there, practiced in different corners of our system. We need to be bolder at taking these innovations from the margins into the mainstream.

Phil Bowen, Director Centre for Justice Innovation