Can community sentences replace jail?

Offender in Community Payback vest

With the prison population rising, along with the cost of keeping people locked up, ministers have indicated they want to see fewer people serving short jail terms. But are community sentences a real alternative?

For those visiting the graves of loved ones, it must come as a comfort to see the cemetery being so well looked after.

Grass has been neatly cut, hedges and shrubs trimmed back and the workmen are in the process of laying paving slabs for a path.

Perhaps worth a rare letter to the local press in praise of the council?

But rather than council workers, these are "offenders working in the community" as a notice near the entrance points out.

This "community payback" - as emblazoned on the young men's fluorescent jackets - is the latest branding of what used to be called unpaid work - or community service when it was introduced in 1972.


For Alan Boothroyd, 25, the work in rural Northamptonshire is a welcome alternative to jail.

"Last week we were putting in raised flower beds at a disabled school. It gives me a lot of pride," he says.

His story is similar to many others; left school with poor grades, became a trainee stonemason until the company went bust, "got bored and fell in with the wrong people".

Alan ended up in jail on remand when he didn't turn up for an appointment with a probation officer ahead of being sentenced for two counts of burglary. He was expecting to be sent back to jail but was instead given 200 hours payback and ordered to undertake an education, training and employment course.

"I was relieved. When I was in prison, there was no routine but at least with this you're getting up and going to work," he says.

Case Study

In the last three years, my life has been all about either probation or prison.

I was shoplifting on a daily basis. Nothing else mattered to me apart from having a drink. I was lethargic and had no appetite.

Prison has never scared me. I spent a lot of my [first] sentence on the hospital ward coping with withdrawal symptoms. I don't remember the first few days.

[Probation] opened a lot of doors and [has] given me a big boost in self-confidence. I haven't slipped once in six months. I've no desire to go back to alcohol and I've seen the opportunities that are there for me.

It's given me my ambition back. I feel like I've got something to offer society now.

The course is improving his English and maths so he can apply for a college course in mechanics.

"It gives me time to look for a job so I can provide for myself," he adds.

His is the kind of sentence Ken Clarke appeared to advocate when he declared it was "virtually impossible to do anything productive with offenders on short [prison] sentences" in his first speech as justice secretary.

In the process, he angered predecessor Michael Howard who - as home secretary in 1993 - declared "prison works".

However, with the prison population at a record 85,000 - nearly double that in Mr Howard's day - and justice about to lose £2bn of its £9bn budget, changes seem inevitable.

It costs more than £50,000 a year on average to keep a petty criminal in prison against £2,800 to administer a community sentence, the government says.

Champions of community punishment suggest they are also more effective, pointing to reoffending rates of around 36%, compared to 60% among those released from short sentences.

The key, they say, is that they are not limited to having offenders paint railings or tidy parks.

Today's magistrates have powers to impose punishments which aim to do any combination of punish people, change behaviour, control offending and help with personal problems.

Punishments can include a curfew, compulsory drug rehabilitation or education, and group work to discuss behaviour at an "attendance centre".

Public scepticism

Through the modern incarnation of the first probation programmes of the 19th Century, officers can challenge offenders to recognise the consequences of their actions, or tackle issues such as anger management, domestic violence and drink driving.

The Howard League for Penal Reform argues that because petty criminals are more likely to be affected by homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse and mental health issues, community punishment is more effective than a short jail term, which does not allow time for behavioural intervention.

So, if they work so well, why are community sentences not already the norm for less serious crimes?

Perhaps the justice secretary best sums it up: "Successive governments have tried to make community penalties more tough and effective. The public are still not convinced they are as effective as prison."

Start Quote

I thought I was looking at prison. It was very scary - now I want to keep my head down”

End Quote Richard Hawkes Offender

Sceptics include the Magistrates Association, which points to a 2008 National Audit Office report suggesting some probation officers sometimes overlook "unacceptable" excuses for offenders not turning up.

On average, three no-shows were accepted in the first six-months of orders. One in five were due to "sleeping in" or illnesses without a sick note, despite rules restricting absence to causes such as medical appointments, work or meetings with other agencies.

Even then, the association's chairman John Thornhill argues that 80% of petty offenders only end up in prison because they have failed to comply with orders "two, three or four times".

"We have no choice as magistrates but to send them to custody."

People scrubbing graffiti from a wall Unpaid work is most often associated with community punishment

He is calling for community sentences to be made tougher and the association has backed pilot schemes in six areas offering intensive seven-day-a-week supervision.

Official figures show about 65% of the 11,000 or so community orders handed down in England and Wales each month are completed in full or finish early because the offender makes good progress.

Offenders fail to finish the remaining 35%, often because they simply do not turn up, breach curfews, or are convicted of another offence.

Neil Cowen, crime researcher for social affairs think-tank Civitas, says reoffending statistics are skewed because those on short sentences have usually already breached community orders and so are the most likely to continue offending.

"Short sentences don't tend to do much other than give the community a brief respite but the incapacitation effect is quite important," he says.

While they may cost more than community punishment, the cost to society of keeping that offender in the community - in terms of effects on people, businesses and public services - may actually be greater, adds Mr Cowen.

'No deterrent'

A report by independent charity the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies last year, based on interviews with 25 probation officers, summed up the view of many critics.

It quoted one respondent as saying offenders placed on community orders left court "laughing their heads off", while another officer complained that people who failed to comply were not dealt with strongly enough:

"You go to court for a breach and you don't get sent to prison, you go back on the van next week and all your mates tell everybody else about it. It doesn't have the deterrent effect that it's meant to have."

But the centre's director Richard Garside says community sentences do have their strengths.

Probation through the years

An offender straightens a paving slab
  • 1820 - Warwick Magistrates pioneer one-day jail sentences for young offenders on condition they be more closely supervised by guardians in future
  • 1876 - Church of England Temperance Society appoints a missionary to London's Southwark and Lambeth courts "for the purpose of dealing with individual drunkards, with a view to their restoration and reclamation"
  • 1907 - Community sentences formally introduced. Creation of the Probation Service allows for an alternative to prison, through one-to-one sessions with its officers over six months to three years
  • 1972 - Unpaid community service introduced

Sources: National Association of Probation Officers, Probation Association

"One of the biggest problems for people coming out of prison is that they have lost jobs, their house, lost touch with their family. That's a terribly bad place to start when you're trying to rebuild your life."

Working people can now do their community payback at weekends, so they do not have to lose their job.

But Mr Garside says you cannot simply displace people from prison into community service, given the number of people serving in both has been rising.

The centre recently reported that prisons spending rose from £2.87bn in 2003/4 to nearly £4bn in 2008/9. But the number of people under probation supervision also increased by 38.7% in the decade to 2009, with spending rising from £665m to £1bn in the seven years to 2007/8.

"The general trend has been to toughen up conditions placed on community service which can have the paradoxical effect of increasing the chances of the orders being breached," Mr Garside points out.

Back in Northamptonshire, placement officer Ranjit Samat operates a "zero tolerance" approach with issues like swearing or using a mobile phone. Transgress and you are sent off-site, which constitutes a breach.

He says there are always a few problems - often those with drug or alcohol issues do not want to take part - but that nine-out-of-10 respond well.

His seven-strong group exchange banter like any other work team, among them the owner of a small construction company who is directing work.

Stepping back after laying a slab, Richard Hawkes, 22, vows to "learn from his mistakes" which saw him in court for hitting someone with a bottle - his first time in trouble.

"I thought I was looking at prison. It was very scary. But I've enjoyed this work and now I want to keep my head down."

The government has enlisted community groups, the private and voluntary sectors to help shape reform and repeated Mr Clarke's suggestion of paying such groups to reduce offending.

Whatever the results of this consultation, it seems community punishment will play an increasing role.

A selection of your comments appears below

Getting offenders to work is a 'win win' solution: things get done that otherwise probably wouldn't; individuals learn to do something that is valuable for the community, and by it they have to learn to be industrious, cope with the routines and timings of working. Maybe they build self esteem and see themselves in a different light, and begin to change their lives for the better - so much more desirable than locking them up at society's expense and alienating them further. I'd prefer, recognition of wrong doing and a will to reform over incarceration - this initiative can be positive: for everyone

Wendy Ann, Ipswich

I teach numeracy to adults in a FE college. until recently the college was able to work with the local probation Service providing education for offenders on community orders. Due to the nature of the work, mainstream funding was never sufficient to cover the costs incurred and the Learning and Skills Council provided top up funding to cover the cost. One of the last acts of the LSC before it was replaced was to withdraw the funding that made this work possible. As a result the education aspect of community orders has simply ceased in my area and must be under threat elsewhere also.

Jon Lavis, Exeter

So as far as I understand it, there are four purposes for sentencing through the justice system: 1. to punish, 2. to serve as a deterrent, 3. to remove dangerous elements from society, 4. to rehabilitate criminals. It seems that community service is covering both 1 and 4 very well, and in some cases 2. It is the judge's responsibility to determine what sentence should be given when a community sentence is appropriate. If community sentencing does not act as a deterrent amongst certain subsets of society, then a judge should use his/her common sense and lock them up. But for many, prison just convinces people they have no way of living other than by crime, but a community sentence can show them another way, if this is the case then judges need to be handing out these sentences. Judge it on an individual basis, on the person there, not on what their crime is.

Emily , Edinburgh

Prison sentences and other forms of punishment are far, far too lenient. For example, if a judge tells you you are going to prison for life, he (or she) will then contradict themselves by saying "for a minimum of 15 years." Either they go to prison for the rest of their life with no possibility of parole or they go for 15 years. Inmates should also be required to do community or other work that would benefit the community at large such as street-sweeping, park tidying etc. These people are criminals and should be treated as such to protect the law-abiding amongst us and to make their time in prison a punishment, not a respite break. Prison reform groups and other so called "do-gooders" are partly to blame for the prisons being overcrowded and crime rates to be as bad as they are. CRIMINALS shouldn't have access to TVs, computers, video games, education and all the other luxuries that seem to go with prison life these days. They should be made to work hard and have none of the comforts that free men have.

Bob, West Midlands

I've done some community service myself. Unlike most of my ''community work colleagues'' I did have a job and I am a university graduate. I committed a crime called drink driving and had to do 180 hours of community service. After receiving the sentence I was somewhat relieved - I knew I would not be locked away from my family and I still could work and study. I sincerely regretted my mistake and I was happy to ''buy out'' my guilt in a constructive way which, I reckon, was better than a jail sentence, not only for me but for the community as well. However I noticed some very disturbing trends inside the community payback scheme. First of all it's the attitude of supervisors. I met two kinds of them. First group would be ''job orientated'' supervisors. They see ''community payback'' as - you've done harm now go and do some good through your work to counterweight your crime. They were not fussy about your footwear or if you are late one minute as long as you put your back into it. Other group were ''punishment management'' orientated supervisors. These guys were more interested in office politics and showing of their bureaucratic power to usually very young and not so smart men. Actual work output was somehow not important. From my experience first group managed to get young petty offenders to act constructively and work whilst when second group took charge lots of ''petty crime youngsters'' went back to court and deliberately chose jail, as psychological pressure was too much to bear for them.

EJ, Essex

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