Community or custody? A tough question


Critics argue that community justice programmes aren't tough enough

What does the phrase "community sentence" mean to you?

Journalists sometimes characterise a court's use of such a measure as the offender "escaping prison" - the suggestion being that only depriving the criminal of his or her liberty amounts to a suitably rigorous punishment.

Custody and community are often seen as polar opposites in the justice lexicon: custody is tough; community is soft; prison is properly punitive; probation is a let-off.

The very word "community" has become associated in the minds of some with indulgent and misplaced compassion, a dangerously naive belief in the essential goodness of society.

It is cast as a left-right thing too, of course. Spiky traditionalists demand punitive sanctions. Fluffy liberals want care and rehabilitation.

Long before Tony Blair talked of the need to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", serious politicians with an interest in reforming the criminal justice system tip-toed along the line between punishing offenders and helping them away from crime.

So it is that Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke must pursue his ambitions of reducing the prison population in England and Wales (currently at its highest ever level of almost 87,000) and implementing his "rehabilitation revolution" to reduce recidivism with regular references to the "feral underclass" and the need for "severe punishments" delivered by the "cold, hard accountability of the dock".

Crime cut

The criminal justice think-tank Make Justice Work wanted to introduce some rationality into this debate and a year ago assembled a panel of experts to consider "community or custody".

The commission included senior figures from across the criminal justice system and was headed by the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne, an influential figure in shaping conservative thinking.

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Today we see the fruits of their labour, a unanimous report with Oborne invited to write the foreword however he saw fit.

"The first point that became shatteringly clear was that alternatives to prison are not a soft option as so often portrayed," he says.

Bemoaning the way "the debate is framed in favour of those who urge long prison sentences", he says his conclusion at the end of his year-long study is that "Ken Clarke's revolution is the most intelligent and realistic answer to many of the most intractable problems in the criminal justice system".

If other members of the committee had written that - former prisons inspector Dame Anne Owers or former Met commissioner Lord Blair for example - I suspect their words would have been quickly dismissed as woolly liberal propaganda.

But Oborne is part of the Tory establishment: independent minded but a man who understands and respects the way conservatives think.

Start Quote

Consulting opinion pollsters is surely one of the worst imaginable methods of devising a criminal justice policy”

End Quote Peter Oborne

The committee's report focuses on the problem of persistent, low-level offenders "who are currently filling our prisons to breaking point - and who leave prison only to offend again, and again". (For the perpetrators of serious and violent crime, the panel agreed, "custody is the only just and effective punishment".)

The conclusion is that rigorous community programmes not only deliver "real reductions in reoffending" they can also "cut crime at a fraction of the cost of prison".

Latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show that non-custodial sentences are up to 9% more effective at preventing reoffending than short prison terms and today's report points out that while a three month prison sentence costs around £11,000, a year-long intensive community justice course costs half of that.

The right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange says that at the moment community sentences are "a joke" and recently conducted a poll which suggested that 60% of the public think they are either soft or weak.

But today's report says such views are "woefully informed".

Hijacked agenda

"Let's take the example of the influential recent pamphlet by the former Tory Chairman Michael Ashcroft entitled 'Crime, Punishment and the People'," Oborne writes.

He quotes the conservative donor's assertion that "even short sentences, though offering too little time for proper rehabilitation, give the public respite from the prolific offenders who commit the most crime. Community sentences, the alternative to prison, command woefully little public support".

A prison officer stands by a door at Wormwood Scrubs The report provides influential backing for Ken Clarke's reforms

But sentencing should not be conducted in the court of public opinion, Oborne suggests.

"Consulting opinion pollsters is surely one of the worst imaginable methods of devising a criminal justice policy," he argues.

The committee was particularly impressed by an "intensive alternative to custody" project in Manchester, a pilot which the Ministry of Justice denied me permission to film because its funding has been cut. The panel said it illustrated exactly what community justice should look like.

"The Intensive Alternative to Custody (IAC) model we investigated in Manchester is exemplary.

IAC orders are a minimum of twelve months but can be as long as two years. The orders are characterised by intensive interventions that occupy the offender five days a week, alongside a private sector-led community outreach service, which monitors behaviour and enforces compliance seven days a week and round the clock.

"Coupled with enhanced electronic monitoring arrangements - or 'tagging' - for curfew orders, this service controls behaviour to a much greater degree than other forms of community supervision.

"The outreach service can respond immediately to non-attendance and other violations of the order, placing additional checks on behaviour, and is able to take action in the evening and at weekends when the risk of re-offending can be highest."

I don't know why Ken Clarke has decided to pull the plug on the Manchester project but I do know he will be delighted by the general findings of today's report.

It provides influential and expert backing for reforms which he believes too often get hijacked by misinformed prejudice and ideological over simplification.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Why not look at the root cause.

    Some have a future - millions don't.

    Generate 3 million jobs tomorrow and crime rate will drop. The alternative is allow unemployment to increase and ignore the crime figures.

    I don't condone crime in any circumstances. but feel there are better people out there given the opportunity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I don't want my tax money to be spend to keep a minor offender in prison. If public service works and costs a lot less than prison than it should certainly be option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The criminal fraternity are notoriously afraid of work; that's why they're criminals. Most of them can quite happily sit on their backsides in a cell 23 hours a day. Work is the answer: For the petty criminal that means work in the community; for the hardened criminal, penal servitude. I've heard quarrying and road-building can be quite character forming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I'd say a fairer society would be a pretty good deterrant -
    I see no bankers in orange trousers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The birch !

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It would depend what you deem community punishment. By all accounts the Manchester project, long term and occupying a lot of the offenders time, was successful. Other community service where they turn up one day a week, if they feel like it, and mess around with their mates are obviously no deterrent at all,

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Once again the views of the British Public are dismissed with contempt by our elected representatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    We have to work out how we balance sentences between a desire for punishment (or revenge) and a hope to reduce the re-offending rate.

    There seems to be general agreement amongst those who wrote the report that community service is more effective at lowering the crime rate. If that is our priority then Community Service - DONE PROPERLY - seems to be the way to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Many people are in prison for offences that would not be considered a risk to other people.
    Terms like Bernard Madoff's of 150 years in prison will do nobody any favours.
    Murderers should stay in full time (Life meaning Life).
    Prisoners should only be kept in jail if they are a danger to others or a "Secure Hospital" if it is themselves and others

    House arrest is a viable if Orwellian method.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    community service or now its called "payback" just doesnt work ,its a joke because i work with people who have been put on payback or community service and its a farce everybody i know who`s been on it just laugh at it . national service is the only deterent nowadays cos the youth are out of control with no respect at all for anyone including the frail, infirm, and even family,n/s is a must.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "I don't know why Ken Clarke has decided to pull the plug on the Manchester project...." - Why not ask him. I would like to know as it appears to contradict his declared preferences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Is this 'intensive monitoring' by the private sector ...

    The same lot that put the tag on the offender's artificial leg?

    Or the same lot who were monitoring Peter Williams, who had removed his tag for 7 days without response before he murdered Marian Bates?

    No surprise tories are backing this scheme - cut spending AND funnel tax payers money to their private sector chums.


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