Community sentences failing to cut prisoner numbers

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has published a new on-line report, Community sentences since 2000. How they work – and why they have not cut prisoner numbers.

Since the 1940s, the United Kingdom has become ever more reliant on prison as a form of punishment and control. The years since the late 1990s have seen the biggest surge in prison populations. Since then, we have shared with former eastern bloc and Baltic states the highest EU rankings for the percentage of people we incarcerate. Yet at the same time, our use of community-based sentences has also increased steadily.

For more than a decade, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has been researching this area and asking what, if anything, community sentences do to reduce prisoner numbers. The evidence suggests that, if we continue with the current approach, community sentences and other non-custodial alternatives will simply expand the net of criminalisation and punishment, exacerbating rather than resolving social harms.

This report forms part of a wider project comparing the UK with seven other European countries in their use of probation and alternatives to custody. It outlines the key policy developments since 2000 in our prison population and use of alternatives, in all three UK jurisdictions. These developments 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’

The report presents information on all the stages at which alternatives to custody are provided by the criminal justice system, including pre-trial (bail), at sentencing, and post-release (for example, home detention curfew and compulsory post-custody probation supervision).

Catherine Heard, the report’s author, said:

Despite rapid growth in the use of community-based sentences, our prison population also keeps growing, consuming scarce resources and causing untold social harm. Community sanctions like unpaid work and electronically monitored curfews are forms of punishment and control: they must not be allowed simply to widen the punishment net, criminalising people in ever greater numbers. We need a more principled framework for the use of both prison and community sentences. 

To download the report in full, click here.