The problem of short sentences
As of May 2015, 88% of prison sentences in Northern Ireland were short sentences (12 months or less). However, research shows that short sentences are ineffective in reducing reoffending because there is usually little that can be done with the offenders to rehabilitate them during their short prison stay. As a result, the reoffending rate for offenders sentenced to a short prison term in Northern Ireland is more than 50%.
There is also a consensus among experts that short prison sentences are significantly less effective in rehabilitating offenders and reducing reoffending than community-based disposals. Consequently, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland requested that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) develop a demanding community sentence as an alternative to the high number of short prison sentences of less than 12 months. The resulting programme is the Enhanced Combination Order (ECO).
A new way to rehabilitate and reduce reoffending
The ECO is designed to focus on rehabilitation, practice and desistance. It involves interventions to address violent tendencies and all participants are offered psychological assessment conducted by PBNI psychologists.
Participating in an ECO requires that the offender:
- Complete unpaid work within local communities at an accelerated pace;
- Participate in victim-focussed work and, if possible, restorative intervention;
- Undergo assessment and, if necessary, mental health intervention with PBNI psychologists. (Where mental health issues are identified, the offender submits to a treatment plan or referral to an appropriate health provider as part of the intervention);
- Participate, where appropriate, in parenting/family support work;
- Complete an accredited programme, if necessary, such as ‘thinking skills’;
- Undertake intensive offending-focussed work with their Probation Officer (PO);
The offender must have committed offences eligible for short term prison sentences. These include: public order breaches, criminal damage, possession of drugs, harassment, violence against the person, threats to kill, causing unnecessary suffering to animals etc.
The ECO uses a multiagency, multidisciplinary collaborative approach – including working with Barnardo’s and Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI) to address the main problems faced by most offenders. Such problems include those around addiction, mental health, family and employment.
The ECO addresses complex needs, welfare issues and personal issues faced by offenders without the ineffectiveness of short prison sentence but with the involvement of community justice through community work.
The ECO was first piloted in the Ards and Armagh & South Down Court Divisions in October 2015. Since then, it has been expanded to the North West and more of Northern Ireland.
The Impact of the ECO
The general consensus amongst everyone who has evaluated the ECO is that it is a highly effective programme that has achieved all its aims and should continue. The judiciary has embraced the programme whole-heartedly with most judges agreeing that it is a constructive and effective alternative to short-term sentences.
It has contributed to a significant reduction in custodial sentences. The number of custodial sentences of 12 months or less, awarded by courts involved in the ECO pilot, decreased by 20.7% between 2015 and 2017.
The ECO has also had a significant effect on the reoffending rates of participants. In the PBNI’s evaluation of the programme, the reoffending rate for a cohort of 52 ECO participants in the six months prior to being sentenced to an ECO was 57.7%. In the six months after sentencing, the reoffending rate was 17.3%. Practitioners have identified the ECO as better suited to addressing the underlying reasons for offending behaviour, including mental health/psychological difficulties.
Also, each ECO costs £9,000 per annum. This – on top of the clearly beneficial social impact, reduced reoffending rate and focus on victim issues – indicates a programme which provides excellent value for money and better outcomes in comparison to short prison sentences (a 12-month sentence costs an average of £37,000).
Participants also felt that their problems were addressed by the ECO. Almost all service users agreed that the ECO had helped them to plan realistic and useful goals and to avoid/reduce reoffending. Participants particularly enjoyed the unpaid work within local communities. They liked the fact that the work kept them busy and thus helped them prevent reoffending as well as bring them back into the community.
To conclude, the ECO is a successful alternative to short sentences and has been embraced by the judiciary, practitioners and service users alike. Not to mention, it has had a significant impact on the rate of reoffending in Northern Ireland.
For more information about the ECO, read more here: https://www.pbni.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-ECO-Evaluation_Final-Report.pdf
This case-study was compiled by Michael Farinu in 2019