Alternatives to custody: How is Europe doing?

Catherine Heard
Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Alternatives to Custody in Europe project (ACE) brings together partners from a diverse range of European countries, to assess the evidence and work out whether criminal justice sanctions and reforms can do more to tackle Europe’s high prison numbers and cut repeat convictions. The effective, fair, and proportionate use of alternatives to prison is the project’s goal.

All but one of the countries involved in ACE have seen big rises in their prison populations since 2000. Most have also seen a rapid expansion in the use of alternatives to custody. We see these alternatives being used more and more:

  • at the pre-trial stage (restrictions in work or travel, curfews and electronic monitoring)
  • instead of immediate jail terms (community sentences such as unpaid work, supervision orders, wearing a tag, undergoing ‘rehabilitation programmes’ or drug treatment and testing orders)
  • as a condition of early release from prison (compulsory supervision periods, curfews, electronic monitoring - even surveillance using the latest GPS technology)

Are alternatives to custody failing to deliver?

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has been researching this area for over a decade. Our work was recently cited by the British Academy in its 2014 report, A presumption against imprisonment. It has become clear to us in the course of analysing the UK picture that our prison populations have continued to rise since 2000, in spite - or perhaps because – of this steady expansion in the use of alternatives.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, have we simply widened the net of punishment and control in our approach to alternatives to custody? If so, how do we reverse that trend? We must address this if we’re to avoid replicating the United States’ model, where half of those in prison are there for breach of probation or licence conditions.

Among the countries we are looking at in this project - Italy, France, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the UK - half have recently managed to bring down their prison numbers, although some started from a position of penal excess. We want to know what role (if any) the use of alternatives to custody has played in this reduction.

Coming highlights

On 10 June we will hold a national workshop in London asking practitioners and experts to look at three key questions on the UK’s use of alternatives to custody:

  • How can we improve our work with young adults and ensure maturity is properly assessed and accounted for at every stage?
  • How do we ensure better use of alternatives for women, including through Women’s Centres and the programmes they deliver?
  • What issues are raised by our increasing reliance on electronic monitoring throughout the criminal justice process?

There will also be a panel debate on political and policy developments in the use of community sanctions and post-release supervision measures. It is likely to address the consequences of the over-use and growing punitiveness of alternatives and their failure to reduce prison numbers or repeat convictions.

The workshop will try to identify policies and practices that could reverse the current trend and help to turn around our over-reliance on incarceration and excessive supervision.

There will be a follow-up workshop in late September, where the conclusions of the June event will be presented, alongside the results from the other countries’ national meetings.

Towards a shared understanding of good practice

All the ACE partners will hold similar workshops, looking critically at their own national systems and coming up with some concrete reforms. The nine partners will then come together in London in July, to discuss the big themes and ideas that emerge from the national reports and workshops.

Our role at the Centre will be to analyse the resulting nine country report comparing the alternatives to imprisonment in each country, contrasting their actual effects with their official or policy aims. We will assess each partner’s practical ideas to raise standards in the use of alternatives in their country. We will then produce a handbook of effective practices backed by a statement of core principles endorsed by all the partners. The handbook will be a valuable resource for policy makers, practitioners and advocates for change. By building up a comparative picture, the project aims to identify the right approaches to improving the use of alternatives, thereby helping to end the wasteful over-use of prison that harms individuals and communities and blights so many European countries.

In 2016, with the EU handbook to anchor it, the work of the ACE project culminates in the development of national and EU initiatives aimed at the more effective, proportionate and fair use of alternatives to custody. The project ends in July 2016 but we’re confident it will have lasting benefits, helping to make the case for reform in the UK and Europe in the years ahead.

More information on the ACE project here.