The changing use of pre-sentence reports


As part of our work to understand why the number of community sentences – community orders, suspended sentence orders and other similar disposals – has fallen by 24% over the past ten years in England and Wales, we are examining the relationship between the courts and probationary services, with a particular focus on the National Probation Service’s work in courts.
In this interim analysis, we present emerging findings from the national data on the use of pre-sentence reports (PSRs) to see whether changes in their use have impacted on the use of community sentences. Sentencers are expected to obtain a PSR before passing any community sentence (other than a stand-alone unpaid work requirement) or any custodial sentence (except one where custody is the only option).
We have found that between 2012-13 and 2016-17:


  • There has been a 22% fall in the number of new PSRs produced. This fall means that there has been an increase in the number of sentences passed (both community sentences and custody) where no new PSR has informed sentencing;
  • There has been a significant change in how PSRs are delivered to court, with an increasing proportion of PSRs delivered orally rather than in writing;
  • While the number of PSRs has fallen, where they are used, the likelihood that sentencers follow the recommendations in the report has increased slightly (by 4% since 2012/13);
  • Because cases with PSRs are more than ten times more likely to receive a community sentence, falling numbers of PSRs is strongly linked to the decline in community sentences;
  • Our modelling suggests that if the number of PSRs had remained stable that there could have been 33,000 more community sentences a year.


These emerging findings open up a range of further questions– 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?
We are exploring these issues with practitioners, in advance of our final report, due in the September 2018, but we invite practitioners and experts to get in touch and help us explore these questions.

Anyone with something to say on these issues should contact Stephen Whitehead