Community or custody? A tough question

Mark Easton
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@BBCMarkEastonon Twitter

media captionCritics 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.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe clunk of the prison gate may put some off crime, but not all

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.

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".

image copyrightbbc
image captionThe 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.