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Executive summary: Community sentences: where did it all go wrong?

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

Tuesday 25 April 2017

REPORT (PDF): Where did it all go wrong? A study into the use of community sentences in England and Wales

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.

Executive summary


Despite overall crime falling, our criminal justice system remains under pressure. Nowhere is that more apparent than 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. [1]

Policymakers have long understood that a key part of the solution to an overstretched prison system lies in a more effective regime of community sentences, able to secure the confidence of magistrates and the public. As far back as 2003, Pat Carter (whose review presaged the creation of the National Offender Management Service) was calling for sentences in the community “to be made more demanding” as a way to re-balance the system.[2] And in November 2016, the Lord Chief Justice called for more offenders to be sentenced to “tough” and “visible” alternatives in the community, in order to reduce the numbers sent to prison.[3]

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 (community orders and suspended sentence orders)[4] are being used less than at any point over the last 15 years. Since 2004, the numbers sentenced to community orders have halved, and overall numbers of sentences served in the community are down 25%, whilst the numbers sentenced to custody have remained relatively stable. Not only is this fuelling unnecessary pressure on our prisons, it is impacting the financial viability of community rehabilitation companies, who are struggling to cope with a lower than anticipated volume of paid work.[5]

This report is the first systematic attempt in over a decade to understand what lies behind this phenomenon. It 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.[6] Most importantly, offenders are not held properly to account for complying with their sentence. The Probation Inspectorate (HMIP) has found that in a third of cases where the offender breached their order, “insufficient effort was made by the CRC responsible officer to re-engage them”[7];

  • 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.[8]

These problems are the result of long term structural issues relating to the operation of the criminal justice system, which largely pre-date recent changes to the mix of crimes and government policy reforms. In particular, there appears to have been a long term decline in:

  • the quality/depth of advice provided to the court to guide sentencing decisions - in the form of ‘pre-sentence reports’ (PSR): there has been a transition over the past decade from PSRs being detailed, written reports to speedy, short, written and oral reports. Almost half (42%) of reports in 2015 were delivered orally, with no information recorded, compared to just 5% in 2006;

  • the level of information/training provided to magistrates: meaning they are unable to make the most effective use of community sentences and/or to take into account probation providers’ capacity to deliver. Over a third (36%) of magistrates do not feel that the training has adequately prepared them for dealing with community sentences and their requirements;

  • probation’s ability to deliver personalised sentences that address the underlying causes of an offender’s behaviour and hold the offender to account for compliance: our qualitative research has revealed a deep-seated sense of decline amongst probation staff about the quality of services being provided and the ability to enforce breaches, which has been exacerbated by recent government policy changes. Four in ten magistrates (39%) are not confident that community sentences can be tailored to suit the individual needs of an offender.

This report puts forward proposals to tackle these failures, including:

  • Introducing primary legislation to guarantee prolific offenders receive a swift and robust response to breaching sentences in the community

  • A new presumption to sentence young adult offenders (18-25) to intensive community orders (successfully piloted in Greater Manchester), rather than short custodial sentences

  • Encouraging magistrates’ courts to regularly review the sentences of prolific offenders

  • Providing magistrates with the ability to deliver more innovative community sentences that are tied to the offender/offence

  • Publishing local data on the nature of unpaid work so communities can see justice being served

These proposals come at a time of significant change to the way offenders are managed in the community. Whilst it is too early to be definitive, there is emerging evidence that the government’s flagship reform programme - Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) - will exacerbate the problems identified above, reducing dialogue between probation and the courts, reducing incentives to deal swiftly with breaches and stifling innovation in the delivery of services to prevent reoffending. There is also little doubt that the fiscal context, with funding having declined since 2010 and set to continue falling, will add to the pressures identified in this report.

Our report seeks to learn the lessons of the recent past, in order to influence the future of sentencing and probation reform. The research was informed by a large number of interviews with police and crime commissioners, magistrates, probation staff, police and policymakers. We also commissioned a new survey of magistrates through the Magistrates’ Association.

Sentences in the community need to improve if they are to have any meaningful impact on reoffending rates. The reforms set out in this paper are a roadmap for how we can make community sentences a powerful crime prevention tool that stops reoffending and keeps communities safe, whilst reducing the pressure on our overstretched prisons.

1 Nick Hardwick in HMIP annual report 2014-15

2 Reducing crime, changing lives: a new approach; the Carter Review, 2003

3 See

4 For the purpose of this report, the term ‘community sentences’ refers collectively to the combination of statistics and/or perceptions of both community orders and suspended sentence order. When referring to only one of the sentences, this is made explicit

5 CRC business volumes were found to be between 6% and 35% lower than predicted, NAO Transforming Rehabilitation, 2016

6 See interim CRC data, MoJ statistics

7 HMIP, Transforming Rehabilitation 5, May 2016

8 The survey was commissioned by Crest Advisory for this study with the support of the Magistrates Association. Reduction of crime took into account the effect of deterrence


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