In this guest blog, Catherine Heard, from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, reports on the Centre’s latest publication, Community sentences since 2000: How they work – and why they have not cut prisoner numbers. The report should be useful for anyone wanting a better understanding of the measures that the Criminal Justice System provides by way of alternatives to custody, and their impact.
The UK has become more and more reliant on prison as a form of punishment and control since the 1940s. The years since the late 1990s have seen the biggest surge in prisoner numbers. If we compare the UK to other EU countries, only Spain, the Baltic States and some former Eastern Bloc countries incarcerate more of their population than we do.
Yet the UK’s use of community-based sentences, while also high over this period, has no clear correlation to prisoner numbers and has achieved no overall reduction in the number of people in custody.
Our new report outlines the key policy developments since 2000, relating to prison populations and alternatives to prison in all three UK jurisdictions. The developments covered include:
- the increasing role of the private sector
- the growth of electronic monitoring
- the growing punitiveness of community sentences
- the confused and conflicting policy messages around ‘punishment’ and ‘rehabilitation’.
This report was produced as part of a wider project, Alternatives to Custody in Europe. The project runs until July 2016 and aims to describe in detail how the UK and seven other EU countries use probation and alternatives to custody. Its goal is to make alternatives much more effective in reducing prisoner numbers.
The report starts with an outline of the political climate on prisoner numbers and alternatives in the three UK legal systems since 2000. Detailed statistics are provided for all the measures, extending from 2000 to 2014 wherever possible. Information is given for all the stages at which alternatives to custody are provided by the Criminal Justice System, including pre-trial (bail), at sentencing (the full range of community sanctions, suspended and deferred sentences), and post-release (parole, home detention curfew and post-custody supervision).
Perhaps the most important point to emerge is how little impact community sentences have on overall prisoner numbers.
The current system of community and suspended sentences was implemented in 2005 and quickly led to big increases in the number of such sentences passed. The data we have collected show that the number of people serving community orders peaked in the year 2007, when almost 102,000 people were subject to them in England and Wales at year end. The number had dropped to 71,055 by 2014. Similarly, the use of suspended sentences had peaked at almost 44,000 in 2008 and dropped to 39,241 by 2014.
2005 – 2014 was a period marked by severe and widely reported prison overcrowding. With these community alternatives now available to help reduce the use of prison, one might have expected to see a direct correlation between the data on their use and the data on numbers of people serving a final prison sentence. Yet we see no such correlation.
In England and Wales in 2002, before the advent of the community order and its range of options (community payback, supervision, curfew on tag, and various programmes and treatment orders), the daily rate of prisoners serving a custodial sentence in was 57,306. The number increased steadily each year until 2012 when it peaked at 73,564, falling to 71,481 for 2014.
Similar pictures emerge from Northern Ireland and Scotland. Ministers in all three jurisdictions have avoided making any commitment to an overall reduction in prisoner numbers. Indeed in England and Wales departmental announcements of ever longer prison sentences have been delivered in celebratory tones. The language on community alternatives has been that they should be tougher, enforced harder, and have a more punitive impact.
All this suggests that community sentences have failed to deliver sustained reductions in the numbers in custody. Without a radical policy shift, community sentences and other non-custodial alternatives will simply expand the net of criminalisation and punishment, exacerbating social harms rather than resolving them. It’s time for a more principled framework for the use of both prison and community sentences.