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Community sentences: where did it all go wrong?

Insights Report


Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive Officer | Sophie du Mont, Strategy and Insight Manager

Tuesday 25 April 2017


Despite crime falling overall, our criminal justice system remains under pressure, particularly in our prisons, which are, in the words of the former Chief Inspector, ‘in their worst state for a decade’, with violence, overcrowding and self-harm higher than at any point on record. The notion that community sentences can be a more effective, cheaper alternative to prison is supported by a strong body of evidence. At their best, sentences served in the community can offer a powerful tool for addressing the root causes of offending behaviour, reducing the rate at which an offender reoffends and thus lowering demand on the system overall. Yet despite their obvious potential, community sentences are being used less than at any point over the last 15 years. Where did it all go wrong? is the first systematic attempt in over a decade to understand what lies behind this phenomenon and reveals some of the reasons for this loss of confidence. Crest Advisory has explored the current use of community sentences in the context of the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme and the ongoing and challenging fiscal context. Whilst there are no silver bullet solutions, the report sets out a number of measures the government could implement to make a difference.

Key findings

The report reveals that community sentences:

  • are implemented in a way that bears little resemblance to the evidence of what works: they are neither intensive, swift, nor punitive enough to act as a proper deterrent. Most importantly, offenders are not held properly to account for complying with their sentence;

  • are failing to transform lives, acting as little more than a stepping stone on the path to prison: 35% of those sentenced to custody have received at least five previous community sentences;

  • have lost the confidence of magistrates: a new survey of magistrates commissioned for this report reveals that over a third of magistrates (37%) are not confident that community sentences are an effective alternative to custody, and two thirds (65%) are not confident that community sentences reduce crime. As one magistrate we interviewed put it: “It may be wonderful what is going on but we want to know what’s going on”.


The report recommends eleven policy changes, to do with sentencing reform, the role of magistrates, the role of probation and justice devolution:

  1. A ‘Project Hope’ for England and Wales

  2. Greater flexibility for magistrates to administer innovative punishments tailored to the offender/offence

  3. Amend sentencing guidelines to introduce a presumption of intensive community orders for young adult offenders facing custodial sentences of 12 months or less in magistrates’ courts

  4. Amend sentencing guidelines to remove the assumption that suspended sentence orders are less onerous than community orders

  5. Extend the power to undertake regular court reviews for prolific offenders serving short custodial sentences and/or community orders to all magistrates’ courts

  6. Enhance magistrates’ training to improve their understanding of community sentences

  7. Improve the quality of pre-sentencing advice

  8. Provide feedback about the outcome of sentences to magistrates

  9. Support greater transparency of community sentences, particularly the nature of unpaid work

  10. Require a new target to ensure that the NPS allocates cases to the CRC on the same day as the sentencing, and that requirements are commenced the week afterwards (or at least no later than a month after sentencing for specialist requirements)

  11. Enable PCCs and mayors to co-commission offender management services locally


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