some practitioners have pointed to more re-use of existing reports for repeat offenders, others to pressures on court timetabling

What is happening with pre-sentence reports? Data provides some answers, but asks more questions

Posted on 18 Jul in

Stephen Whitehead

Passing a sentence in a criminal court is a complex process. Judges and magistrates must juggle a slew of competing (and sometimes contradictory) including punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation and the protection of the public. Sentencing guidelines can help them consider the crime that’s been committed and the appropriate level of punishment, but they cannot speak to the circumstance of the individual being sentenced. Here, aside from the necessarily partial opinions of the defence and prosecution, they are reliant on the advice of probation, delivered in the form of a pre-sentence report (PSR).PSRs offer sentencers a professional assessment of the offenders strengths and weaknesses, of their background and of the risk they pose to the public, and an evidence-based view on right sentence.

Our latest briefing explores the latest data on the use of pre-sentence reports to see whether they can play a role in encouraging sentencers to move away from damaging short term custody and towards the evidence backed community sentences.

Our research has found that the number of pre-sentence reports has dropped significantly: by 22% over 5 years, even as the number of cases being sentenced in courts has risen (albeit only slightly). If this drop had not taken place, the number of community sentences passed each year could be as much as 33,000 higher.

However, the data, as always, only tells part of the story. It doesn’t tell us what’s driving the fall in PSRs – some practitioners have pointed to more re-use of existing reports for repeat offenders, others to pressures on court timetabling – nor does it demonstrate that the fall in PSRs actually caused the decline in community sentences: we could equally infer that sentencers are not requesting PSRs as often because they are not considering the option of a community sentence.

We’re still in the process of trying to understand the implications of this data, so we’d welcome the views of practitioners or scholars with a perspective on these issue. In particular we’re interested to hear views about what is driving the fall in new PSRs? How is advice being provided in cases which don’t have them? And ultimately, what is making sentencers less likely to use community sentences when they don’t have pre-sentence advice?

Anyone with something to say on these issues should contact me at swhitehead@justiceinnovation.org or @cjinnovation on twitter.