Community sentences won’t solve Europe’s prison problem

Helen Mills argues community sentences, whatever their other merits, aren't the answer to high prison numbers

Helen Mills
Wednesday, 29 June, 2016

Over the last two years the Centre has been part of an eight country collaboration looking at the use of community-based sentences in Europe. Aware of the relative gap in information about community-based sentences, the project recently published two publications setting out to:

Establish key trends in the use of community based sentences over fourteen years (2000 - 2014) across the UK, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Latvia and Poland.
Share promising practices which support a smaller criminal justice system with less focus on punishment.

Here I summarise some of the key trends in the use of community sentences and reflect on the central concern of this European Prison Observatory project: Can community-based sentences be part of strategies to reduce high prison numbers?

Key trends

Overall the number of people serving community based sentences has expanded alongside continued growth in prison numbers. The peak of this trend was prior to 2010. This was when prison numbers and community sentences both increased most rapidly. However, the most recent data we collected, 2010 - 2014, showed community sentences decreased in most places. In England and Wales, for example, community based sentences fell by more than 20,000 between 2010 and 2014. In the same period prison numbers have tended to stabilise at a high level. And in some jurisdictions (Italy, Spain and Latvia) prison populations reduced. Whether these are mere short term adjustments to historically high numbers or the start of something more significant and sustained remains to be seen.

The exception to this was Latvia. Latvia was the only country in our study where community sentences grew alongside a declining prison population over the whole 14 year time period we studied. The caveat is that Latvia was still one of the highest imprisoners in Europe (for its size of population) at the end of this period, as it was at the start.

So what does this mean for those concerned about high prison numbers?

Community sentences aren’t a driver of significant change in prison numbers

Substantial growth in community sentences has happened across Europe. This is a growth which our study shows can outpace prison population increases. Community based sentences can rise exponentially in a short time period. In Spain there were 8,143 community based sentences in 2005. By 2013 there were over 160,000. Compared to imprisonment, there have been relatively few attempts to account for growth in community sentences. Amongst studies which which have taken place two explanations have dominated:

  • Netwidening – that community sentences displace lower tariff sentences, typically fines.
  • Diversion - that community sentences divert people who would have previously been given a prison sentence.

Netwidening and diversion may describe important criminal justice consequences of having more community sentences. Both, however, unhelpfully limit their consideration to only the role of criminal justice processes. Just as changes to prison numbers cannot be explained only by changes to community based sentences; neither can changes to the number of community sentences be explained only in reference to prison numbers and fines. There are more fundamental questions left unaddressed by such an analysis: What are the root causes of changes in the use of community based sentences? How do wider structural circumstances and socio-economic conditions impact on the use, number and type of community sentences? While this field of knowledge is relatively well developed in relation to prison, the study of community sentences in this vein is still in its infancy.

Strategies to reduce imprisonment

The growth of prison in Europe didn’t reflect a reduction in use of community based sentences, in fact community sentences continued to grow alongside prison expansion. Similarly, high prison numbers won't be addressed through reforms and improvements to community sentences alone. The answers to intervening in high prison numbers are likely to be found in wider structural reforms and policy reconfigurations. Community sentences could be a constituent part of this, but they are not an effective framework for reducing high prison numbers. Our work suggests community based sentences may be a mechanism to manage historically high prison numbers. But those with more ambitious intentions to reduce the use of imprisonment beyond this would do well to look elsewhere.