Originally published in The Guardian
Use of non-custodial sentences in England and Wales has fallen sharply but risen significantly in Scotland, according to a report highlighting their effectiveness in preventing re-offending.
The comparative study by the Centre for Justice Innovation reveals that over the past decade there has been a 24% decrease in the number of community sentences imposed in England and Wales compared with an 18% increase in Scotland.
The thinktank’s research found that community sentences have consistently reduced incidences of re-offending.
The divergence in courtroom practices between the two jurisdictions emerged only in 2011. In Scotland, the number of inmates has continued falling and plans for a major new jail have been abandoned; England and Wales, meanwhile, have recorded the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. There are more than 86,000 inmates in England and Wales – an increase of about 6,000 over the past decade.
Scottish courts enforce a presumption against prison sentences that are shorter than three months on the grounds that they disrupt rehabilitiation efforts and are ineffective. Judges must also record their reasons if they impose short prison terms.
“We, tentatively, suggest that the introduction of the community payback order and the presumption against short three-month prison sentences, both introduced in 2011, seem likely to explain at least some of the rise in the use of community sentences in Scotland,” the CJI said. “It remains unclear what has caused community sentences in England and Wales to decline so much since 2011.”
Why there should have been such a dramatic decline in England and Wales at a time when there has been no sudden shift in official sentencing policy is a mystery, the report admits.
Both jurisdictions have experienced a decline in the overall number of criminal cases. In England and Wales, however, the political emphasis has been on reversing the number of “unduly lenient sentences” passed by courts.
A major programme of local court closures in England and Wales, initiated in 2011, and privatisation of the probation service may also have reduced magistrates’ and judges’ confidence in, or knowledge of, alternatives to custody. A newly appointed magistrate who attended the launch of the report at Westminster on Wednesday admitted: “We have no information about community sentences.”
The Centre for Justice Innovation has supported US-style problem-solving courts where magistrates and judges supervise offenders after they have been sentenced to ensure they are reforming their lives.
Its report said that community sentences had consistently reduced re-offending in both England and Wales and in Scotland over the past 10 years. “Community sentences can often represent good value for money,” it noted, “especially in comparison to short prison sentences – even the most expensive intensive community sentences cost just over one-tenth of the cost of a prison place per year.”
Phil Bowen, the director of the Centre for Justice Innovation and a former senior civil servant, said: “When you go to Scotland there are more positive and optimistic developments. Community sentences work because they keep people in their relationships, their accommodation and in work.”
Karyn McCluskey, the chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, said: “We have been on a prevention journey for the past 15 years. Short-term prison sentences do not reduce offending. It causes homelessness and breaks up any positive bonds [offenders] may have.
“Our courts and prisons should not be de facto psychiatric hospitals. I have met people who would much prefer to go to jail: it’s much easier for then. We want to change society’s view of what works.”
The Liberal Democrat former justice minister Lord McNally, who served in the coalition government, told the meeting at Westminster that he had had conversations with Conservative ministers who had asked him, ‘How do we get past the Daily Mail problem?’ – a reference to media demands for longer prison sentences.
“Since Michael Howard said ‘prison works’ and Tony Blair said he was ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’, prison has become a benchmark on how tough we are on crime,” McNally added. “Localism works. Whenever you found [magistrates and judges] working with smaller numbers [of offenders], they tended to experiment and innovate.”