The ECO is a community-based alternative to short sentences. With a focus on rehabilitation and desistence, the ECO involves interventions that address criminogenic needs.

We spoke with Geraldine O’Hare, Director of Probation for Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI), about this innovative practice taking place within Northern Ireland. After a successful pilot of the ECO in the Ards and Armagh & South Down Court Divisions in October 2015, it has now been expanded to the North West and more of Northern Ireland. By addressing the complex needs, welfare issues, and personal issues of offenders through community work instead of short sentencing, rehabilitation is successful and recidivism rates have been reduced. 

The problem with short sentences

As of May 2015, 88% of prison sentences in Northern Ireland were short sentences of no longer than 12 months, and more than 50% of those who received such a sentence went on to re-offend. Research indicates that this is because rehabilitation cannot occur within the limited time frame and so, there was a consensus among experts that community-based disposals would be more effective at reducing re-offending. Subsequently, 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 short sentences which led to the creation of the ECO.

About ECO

The ECO is designed to focus on rehabilitation, practice, and desistance through a multiagency, multidisciplinary, and collaborative approach. It involves interventions to address criminogenic needs and participants are firstly offered assessments by psychologists at PBNI. By then working with Barnardo’s, restorative justice organisations, Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI), and Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA), problems such as addiction, mental health, family, and unemployment can be addressed.

Offences that are eligible for an ECO include:

  • public order breaches
  • criminal damage
  • possession of drugs
  • causing unnecessary suffering to animals
  • harassment
  • threats to kills
  • burglary and counterfeiting
  • causing grievous bodily injury by dangerous driving and other less serious driving offences
  • aiding and abetting blackmail
  • violence against the person
  • possessing an offensive weapon in a public place.

The ECO requires that the offender:

  • Complete unpaid work within local communities at an accelerated pace.
  • Participate in victim-focused work and, if possible, a restorative intervention.
  • Undergo assessment and, if necessary, mental health intervention with PBNI psychologists (where mental health issues are identified, the offender agrees 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-focused work with their Probation Officer (PO).

Impacts of the ECO

General Consensus

The general consensus amongst those who have evaluated the ECO is that it is a highly effective programme. This is supported by many judges who have specifically agreed that it is a constructive and effective alternative to short-term sentences.  Court sentencing data, which was published in December 2020 on short prison sentences enforced over the previous 5 years, indicated that ECOs continue to have an impact on the number of short prison sentences imposed.  This was identified as the strongest argument to support the rollout of ECOs and supplemented by case studies and other outcome measures. 

Findings also suggested that there was an overall increase of 8.4% in custodial sentences of 12 months or less between 2015 and 2019.  However, in the courts in which ECOs were available, the number of short-term prison sentences of 12 months or less was reduced by 13.4% between 2015 and 2019.  Furthermore, the number of short-term prison sentences of 12 months or less, increased in the courts in which ECOs were NOT available by 17% between 2015 and 2019. 

Impact on Participants

Service users felt that their problems were addressed by the ECO as nearly all of them agreed that the ECO had helped them to plan realistic and useful goals to avoid reoffending. They also enjoyed the unpaid work within local communities as this prevented them from reoffending by keeping them busy whilst also integrating them back into the community. Finally, the UUEPC found that ECOs are likely to improve the life chances of the service user’s children by reducing their probability of entering poverty as well as limiting intergenerational offending cycles.

Re-offending Rates

The latest Adult and Youth Reoffending in Northern Ireland (2018/19 Cohort) publication show that 45.6% of those released from custody during 2018/19 reoffended within a year.  The figures include those released from serving a prison term only and those released under community supervision, where such disposals include Determinate Custodial Sentences, Life Licences, and Juvenile Justice Centre Orders.  The PBNI reoffending rate for those released from custody under community supervision was 32.0%.  The reoffending rate for non-custodial disposal with community supervision was 33.9%.  Furthermore, those who received an Enhanced Combination Order had a reoffending rate of 31.1% (down from 41.0% the previous year).

Whilst it is difficult to quantify the impact of PBNI on reoffending rates, it is clear that those released from custody without community supervision pose a greater risk of reoffending than those under supervision with PBNI.

NISRA Evaluations

In June 2017, NISRA published its evaluation of the ECO pilot.  The evaluation concluded that the qualitative and quantitative evidence showed that the initiative had been successful.  The evaluation not only found a reduction in the reoffending rate for those who completed the order but a reduction in the number of prison sentences of 12 months or less imposed by the courts.  In this evaluation, 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 post-sentencing, the reoffending rate was significantly lower at 17.3%.  The number of custodial sentences of 12 months or less, imposed by the courts involved in the ECO pilot, decreased by 10.5% between 2015 and 2016. While there was also a reduction in the overall number of short-term sentences across all the NI courts, at 2.4%, this was lower than that across the pilot areas suggesting that ECO was impacting prison numbers.

The report also highlighted that the estimated cost of an ECO was approximately £9,000, which is more cost-effective than a prison sentence of 12 months, which, in 2017/18 was £55,300.  In March 2019, NISRA published a further evaluation.  This follow-up evaluation, which was based on work up to the end of November 2018, was similarly positive and showed that the number of custodial sentences of 12 months or less, imposed by the courts involved in the ECO pilot, decreased by 20.7% between 2015 and 2017.  A further evaluation is underway and is to be completed in 2022.

Economic Impact Assessment

In May 2019, the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) carried out an economic impact assessment of ECOs.  In summary, the impact assessment identified an expected net benefit of between £5.7m to £8.3m per year in the event of rollout. This is derived from the difference in the running costs of ECOs (as compared to short term prison sentences), expected changes to the rate of proven reoffending and associated costs of crime, and the monetary value of unpaid work carried out as part of the sentence, and the additional tax impacts of improved employment prospects. 

Furthermore, the UUEPC impact assessment of ECOs examined the qualitative impacts that ECO’s may have and indicated that ECOs may be expected to transform the lives of service users’ families and, in particular, the life chances of their children through reduced probabilities of entering poverty and intergenerational offending cycles. Finally, the economic impact assessment reported that the wider community may experience benefits as a result of improvements to the local environment as integral elements of ECOs, or over the longer term through reduced propensity for anti-social behaviour. 

All in all, 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 by addressing the root causes of offending behaviour whilst keeping the individual in the community.

For more information about the ECO, read more here:


This case study was compiled by Michael Farinu in 2019 and updated by Maysa Clam in 2022

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