Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


(ii) The relative effectiveness of community sentences

37. Sentences, custodial and otherwise, can be assessed against a range of criteria. When considering the merits of particular sentences we have asked whether they:

    -  protect the public;

    -  reduce levels of offending through deterrence and rehabilitation;

    -  provide adequate punishment and retribution;

    -  can be provided at an acceptable cost.

Protecting the Public

38. One of the principal objectives of any sentencing policy must be to protect the public, and this view is shared by the Home Office and the probation service. The Home Office 1995 National Standards talk of "setting a priority on the protection of the public from re-offending (and from the fear of crime)",[42] and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation is similarly unequivocal: "the fundamental aim of the probation service is to protect the public and reduce the number of people who become victims of crime".[43]

39. Despite the probation service's commitment to protecting the public, clearly prison affords the most secure protection of the public from offenders, at least for the duration of their sentences. The effectiveness of prison in protecting the public was stressed in written evidence presented to us jointly by Mr Peter Coad, Mr David Fraser and Mr Ronald Lewis (retired Senior Probation Officers), Dr Sybil Eysenck (a psychologist and former magistrate) and Professor Ken Pease of Huddersfield University. Mr David Fraser wrote that "custodial sentences prevent untold crimes being committed and keep in safe conditions many who are unlikeable, difficult, dangerous... Prisons are our only method of guaranteeing the public protection from persistent criminals unmotivated to reform".[44] The corollary of this argument was made by Mr Peter Coad: "the evidence is overwhelming that current probation service policies not only fail to reform offenders but actually provide endless opportunities for their 'clients' to continue committing crime. Thus if the vast majority of offenders under the supervision of the probation service were freed from their orders, the negative effect on the crime rate would be insignificant. Agreeing to community supervision is often only providing a criminal with the opportunity to continue offending".[45] Professor Pease's evidence claimed that by the time a prisoner has served an average length sentence, some 28 per cent of those given a community sentence will have offended again, at least once.[46]

40. Responding to this argument, Mr Paul Cavadino, of the Penal Affairs Consortium, accepted that some offenders serving community sentences re-offended while serving those sentences, but he went on to say: "I do not think it is a particularly sensible response to that fact simply to look at that in isolation. We need to look for longer term prospects for reducing re-offending. We need first of all to increase the effectiveness of community supervision with a view to reducing that 28 per cent. Secondly, we need to ensure that we are doing that in order to reduce the longer term prospects of re-conviction and that applies both to those under community supervision and to those coming out of prison".[47] The Prisons and Probation Minister agreed with this, telling the Committee that "if somebody is in prison then self­evidently they cannot be out in the community re-offending. I do not see any way I can argue with that. However, given that the [reconviction] rates are broadly similar my own conclusion would be that both the prison system and the probation system are capable of doing good work and tackling offending but that neither do it in the proportion that we would like".[48]

41. Two points need to be raised to qualify the statement that, at least for the duration of imprisonment, prison protects the public. Firstly, we were told by offenders whom we met on visits that offenders in prison rely on friends and relatives who visit them to supply them with drugs, and that these drugs are paid for from the proceeds of crime. Therefore, demand for drugs in prisons results in crime being committed against the public. Secondly, the point that the effectiveness of prison in protecting the public lasts only for the duration of the sentence is an important one. As Lord Baker emphasised, the vast majority of prisoners are released at some point. If prison has not done anything to change their offending behaviour it cannot be said, in the long term, to protect the public, as they will simply resume a criminal career on release. This means that the effectiveness of custodial and non-custodial sentences in reducing re-offending is vital in assessing whether they successfully protect the public in the long-term. We examine this issue at paragraph 46f below.

42. It is also the case that some kinds of community sentences can offer much more intense supervision of offenders, and therefore provide greater protection of the public than other community sentences. An additional requirement of a probation order requiring the offender to reside in a hostel is one such example. There are 101 hostels in the country used for this purpose providing approximately 2,200 places;[49] they are also used to house people who are subject to residence as a condition of bail, and for offenders on licence from prison. ACOP told us that "probation hostels...offer far more than accommodation. They provide a structured and safe way of integrating offenders back into local communities and play a key role in protecting the public. A high proportion of residents are extremely difficult and dangerous...Hostels provide 24 hour surveillance and monitoring".[50]

43. We visited one such hostel at Chorlton, in Greater Manchester. The hostel had room for 27 people (in addition to the staff), and was required to maintain an 85% occupancy rate. It currently had 24 residents, of which 3 were on licence from prison, 11 were on probation orders, and 10 were on bail; of these, 8 were in employment, 3 in education, and 3 were unable to work because of age or disability. Rules for continued residence included non-offending, no alcohol or drugs on the premises, and no violence in the hostel. A principal aim was to help residents to restructure their lives, perhaps away from unsettling home lives which might include for example domestic violence, before returning to full liberty. Residents were charged a rent. Those who spoke to the Committee referred to the benefits of having more structured lives than would be the case at home, without having the more hostile and restrictive atmosphere of prison, and the way in which it helped to build self-confidence and respect for others; it was also much more satisfactory in respect of maintaining relations with family and children.

44. NAPO told us that "the weekly cost for a hostel bed runs at between 50 per cent and 66 per cent of that of a prison place" and called for consideration of the extension of the hostel estate.[51] However, as the Probation Managers' Association told us, "even achieving the Home Office's KPI 7 target[52]... there are, on average, between 350 and 400 empty beds in the Approved Hostels sector at any one time".[53] Probation orders with a requirement of residence in a hostel allow serious offenders to be dealt with in the community, while still offering significant protection to the public, and are cheaper than prison. They are therefore a credible alternative to prison. We recommend that the Home Office assesses whether an unoccupied bed rate of around 17 per cent represents an efficient use of resources; that it commissions research to assess the effectiveness of hostels in terms of reconvictions; and that, if such results demonstrate a reasonable level of success compared to prison and other community sentences, it encourages the greater use of probation orders with requirements to reside in hostels as an alternative to imprisonment in appropriate cases; and that it ensures there is adequate provision of hostel places to facilitate such a shift in sentencing practice.

45. For as long as they are locked up, prison affords the greatest degree of protection to the public from criminals and will always need to fulfill this role. However, nearly all prisoners are released at some point, and at present rarely have to confront their offending behaviour in order to be rehabilitated to the same extent as those who have taken part in the more intensive forms of probation. At this point it is not so clear that prison has protected the public in the long term. If community sentences are effective at weaning offenders away from a criminal lifestyle, they may, in many cases, offer the most effective long-term protection of the public.

Reoffending, deterrence and rehabilitation

46. We did not examine the issue of general deterrence, ie to what extent a particular sentence deters the general population from committing a crime. However, we did examine the issue of how effective sentences are at deterring offenders who serve them from reoffending; where an offender does not reoffend it is reasonable to assume that this is often, at least to some extent, as a result of the rehabilitative elements of the sentence. Reconviction rates are an imperfect, but useful, indicator of reoffending, and we now turn our attention to them.

47. As the Home Office told us, the following qualifications must be borne in mind when assessing reconviction rates:

48. Overall reconviction rates for offenders given custodial and non-custodial sentences are available, measured over a two year follow-up period. The latest available reconviction rates for all offenders commencing community penalties in 1993 and all offenders discharged from custodial sentences, except fine defaulters and non-criminal prisoners, in the same year, are as follows:

Reconviction rates for offenders commencing community penalties, and those discharged from custodial sentences, in 1993, for subsequent two years[55]


Two year reconviction rate (per cent)



All community sentences


All probation orders


Probation order with requirement to attend a probation centre


Probation order with requirement to participate in specified activities


Probation order with other requirement


Community service order


Combination order


49. Home Office Research states that two factors should be borne in mind when comparing the reconviction rates of custodial with non-custodial sentences. The first concerns 'pseudo-reconvictions': these are offences dealt with during the two year follow-up period which related to offences committed before that period began. This factor is likely to increase artificially the rate for non-custodial sentences by approximately four percentage points compared to custodial sentences. The second factor is the differences in the characteristics of offenders given community sentences and those sent to prison (e.g. age and criminal history). The Home Office Research states that this should be accounted for by an upward adjustment in the rate for community sentences of about 2 per cent, and concludes that once the two factors are accounted for "there is currently no significant difference between reconviction rates for custody and all community penalties".[56]

50. As well as these overall reconviction rates we heard about individual probation programmes which achieved lower reconviction rates. For instance, the Howard League for Penal Reform told us about the following programmes which each achieved lower reconviction rates than the overall national figures:

- A programme run by Hereford and Worcester Probation Service for young adult offenders, which was researched over a six year period, where it was found that offenders on the group had 16 per cent fewer reconvictions within two years than a similar group sentenced to youth custody;

- The Ilderton Motor Project which deals with persistent taking and driving away offenders. A research study conducted by the Inner London Probation Service found that the reconviction rate of project attenders over three years was 38 per cent lower than that of a comparison group of similar offenders;

- Merseyside Probation Service's Car Offender Project, whose participants were found to have a 24 per cent reconviction rate over a twelve month follow-up period, compared to a 43 per cent reconviction rate for such offenders nationally.[57]

51. We have also seen a number of probation activities which seem to hold out the possibility of improved reconviction rates on the visits we conducted. For instance, Sherborne House in South London, which deals with young male offenders who would otherwise receive a custodial sentence[58], has been shown to have a reconviction rate 15 per cent lower than would be predicted for the offenders it deals with.[59]

52. While we welcome any activities in community sentences which offer reduced reconviction rates, and we were impressed by many of the innovative schemes we saw in place around the country, we have to strike a note of caution. HM Inspectorate of Probation published a report earlier this year, "Strategies for Effective Offender Supervision",[60] which the Chief Inspector, Mr Graham Smith states is "the most important piece of work with which the Probation Inspectorate has ever been involved"[61]. The report is based on "What Works?" principles—the research-led findings which indicate the most effective methods of dealing with offenders in the community[62] —and attempts to identify how widespread is the adherence to these principles amongst probation programmes around the country.

53. The report states that "nationally there is no easily available information on the findings from programme evaluation undertaken by the probation services" (page 22). An Evaluation Survey was therefore undertaken seeking to identify the extent of programme evaluation by the probation service; the scope and adequacy of outcome evaluation carried out; and the characteristics of the best evaluated programmes. The Chief Probation Officers (CPOs) of the (then) 55 probation services were requested to identify programmes which had been evaluated; 43 did so, identifying 267 programmes. Following further enquiries, a majority of these programmes appeared not to have been evaluated adequately, or were removed from the survey for other reasons. This process left 33 programmes which were suitable for further examination. Of these 33 programmes, "four programmes...although sometimes narrow in their focus, constitute good examples of what can be achieved"; while "seven other evaluation returns, while not demonstrating successful outcomes, nevertheless showed promising approaches to some aspects of evaluation"[63]. For the programmes which were inadequately evaluated, this was usually because the evaluation had not been conducted over a long enough period and/or had not involved enough offenders.

54. It must be a cause of concern that a national survey of probation programmes conducted by HMIP could find so few adequately evaluated programmes. The Inspectorate explained to us that there were a number of reasons why this was the case. The first was that "culturally the probation service has never seen research as having a high priority"[64]. Mr Smith went on to state that, as a Chief Probation Officer, "I was actually dismissive of research—I confess to you—because it was always giving me bad news, or it was saying 'You cannot make any difference'. So you tended to push it to one side because it set against your empirical common-sense."

55. A second reason, HMIP told us, was not just that CPOs and others in the probation service afforded the research which was produced a low priority, but that the Home Office did the same and that, consequently, the research that was produced was not adequate, lacking as it did a coherent, national, approach. We were told: "there has been insufficient resource put into probation service research; it is a tiny amount of the Home Office budget—something like £120,000 was spent by the Home Office last year on research into the probation service. There has been no national strategy for research, and I think that is something that we need to work on because the 54 probation services are independent and, therefore, able to produce very limited local research. That is a very real problem".[65]

56. A third reason suggested was that, where research into reconviction rates was conducted on a local basis by individual probation services, it was hampered by practical difficulties in accessing the relevant information—"Very practical things like access to the police national computer is a major problem, which is ludicrous".[66] This message was also given to us when we visited probation services; Greater Manchester Probation Service, in particular, noted the difficulties in accessing national information about reconvictions of particular individuals.

57. Responding to these points, the Prisons and Probation Minister stated that she was "satisfied there is now a big impetus in the system to evaluate properly and build on the What Works agenda. I think it has been very slow in getting underway but I think there is now a real head of steam to evaluate what works most effectively and then to build on that in terms of getting national guidelines, national modules, national programmes which can then be followed in different probation areas".[67] Also, the funding for research was higher than had been suggested: the Home Office told us that the £120,000 figure was approximately correct for the figure spent in this area by the Research Statistics Directorate alone, but that additional funds were spent and that when these were included it was estimated that £275,000 would be spent on probation research in 1998-99.[68]

58. Regarding access to reconviction data the Minister agreed that it was extraordinary that probation officers cannot easily obtain up-to-date information. She told us that "We are very keen to improve the information technology system not just across the probation system but also across the criminal justice system as a whole so that we do end up with systems which are compatible with each other and which are capable of talking to each other".[69]

59. The Home Office told us that they did not have figures for the average time taken for probation officers to receive relevant information from the police regarding offenders, but that "experience in the West Midlands [is that] the typical turnaround time from the West Midlands Police is 1-2 weeks but performance varies considerably depending on Police workload". This information was gained as part of a pilot programme in the West Midlands which allowed probation officers to use a computer terminal with direct access to the police's 'Phoenix' computer system. This pilot ends in July 1998 and will be evaluated. The emerging findings were, the Home Office told us, "encouraging in that probation officers are getting the information they require faster, typically within 1-2 days rather than the 1-2 weeks normally taken". However, the Home Office told us that "the West Midlands Probation Service has decided not to continue using the terminal...[because], while the business benefits are acknowledged, the service has stated that the costs of operating the terminal do not justify the benefits they gain". The Home Office state that the solution might be to develop a link between the probation service's own IT system and Phoenix, and that this issue is currently being considered.[70]

60. The Home Office also told us that a circular was issued in February 1998 which informed Chief Probation Officers that they should, following discussions with their local Chief Constable, be able to receive information from the Police National Computer regarding offenders' histories, within three working days of requesting them. This involves the police accessing the information themselves and passing it onto probation officers, and not probation officers directly accessing the information themselves, as in the West Midlands pilot. While this 3 day limit should mean that probation officers can get information about offenders more quickly than in the past, the Home Office stated that "some probation services are...experiencing problems in getting local Forces to meet the times agreed in the recent circular".[71] We recommend that the Home Office act quickly to ensure that the probation service's information technology systems can directly access the relevant records held by police systems, regarding the offenders with whom they are working. While waiting for this to be implemented we urge police forces to comply with the recent three day limit introduced to provide probation services with the information they require.

61. Overall reconviction rates for custodial and non-custodial sentences suggest that there is little to choose between them in terms of effectiveness in reducing reoffending. However, some evidence suggests that the most successful forms of community sentence can reduce reoffending more effectively than prison. Two qualifications need to be made to this finding however: reoffending rates are still high, even under the more effective programmes; and the research on which such conclusions concerning the effectiveness of community sentences should be made is often inadequate.

62. The absence of rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of community sentences is astonishing. Without it confidence in them must be limited and sentencing policy a matter of guess-work and optimism. We welcome the importance which the Probation Inspectorate are giving to assessing effectiveness and the fact that many probation services now recognise the importance of being able to demonstrate that community sentences work. However, when viewed in the context of the overall expenditure on the criminal justice system, and the further costs of crime both to the victims and to society, the figures spent nationally on research are risibly minuscule. The Government should rectify this, take a long term view and ensure that community sentences are adequately assessed.

Punishment and retribution

63. Whether a sentence provides adequate punishment or not is a subjective judgement, complicated by the fact that there is no standard measure of 'punishment' which can be applied to individual offenders. For instance, while no-one doubts that imprisonment punishes a criminal, how does it rank alongside forcing a drink-driver to confront a mother whose child died in an accident caused by such a driver?[72] There is more than one way to be tough on crime and its perpetrators.

64. We note at paragraph 140f below the findings of the British Crime Survey which said that 79 per cent of respondents believed current sentencing practice to be too lenient[73]. However, the same survey also showed that, in a given scenario, many members of the public were more inclined to support a community sentence when the sentencer had in fact imposed a custodial sentence.

65. There is no standard measurement of punishment. While prison deprives criminals of their liberty, community sentences can and should be rigorous. They should make demands in terms of hours worked, for example, on community service, and also in the psychologically challenging practice of forcing offenders to confront their criminal behaviour and its effects—something they may never be required to do in prison. More needs to be done to make the public aware of this kind of work carried out with offenders given community sentences.


66. The average costs of prison sentences, probation orders, community service orders and combination orders is as follows:

Average annual unit costs (£) of prison and community sentences[74]

Type of sentence

Average annual unit cost (£) [75]



Probation order


Community service order


Combination order


67. There is no straightforward way of making a simple comparison between the total costs involved of sending someone to prison or of giving them a community sentence. It costs more for the state to keep offenders in prison than to sentence them to community sentences, but there are also additional costs associated with imprisonment not accounted for here, including, for example, family breakdown and loss of employment. The hidden cost of community sentences, on the other hand, is that of the further crimes committed by offenders in the community, which would have been avoided had custodial sentences been imposed.

68. However, as Professor James McGuire of the University of Liverpool told us, "it is difficult to obtain meaningful information concerning the comparative costs of criminal justice interventions, because of the complexity of the calculations involved, the difficulties of defining costed components of services, and the embeddedness of selected aspects of services within other cost structures. It is also extremely problematic to make comparisons between monetary costs and other costs and benefits judged on the basis of different sets of values. As a consequence, few studies have been conducted on this question and suitable comparisons are difficult to make".[76] While we recognise the difficulties in doing so, we recommend that the Home Office commission comparative research on the full costs of the use of custodial and non-custodial sentences, not just in terms of direct government expenditure, but also accounting for the wider social costs involved. Such research would allow decisions concerning the use of custody to be taken on a more informed basis.

42  National Standards for the Supervision of Offenders in the Community, Home Office, 1995, p 2. Back

43  Protecting the Public, a brochure produced by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation and the Central Probation Council. Back

44  Appendix 4, memorandum by Mr David Fraser, para 8. Back

45  ibid., para 13. Back

46  Q 189 and Q 192. Back

47  Q 375. Back

48  Q 856. Back

49  Unprinted memorandum from the National Association of Probation and Bail Hostels. (See list of unprinted memoranda.) Back

50  Appendix 2. Back

51  Appendix 16. Back

52  The Home Office's Key Performance Indicator 8 for the probation service is "the proportion of bedspaces in approved hostels which are occupied"; the Target is 83 per cent. In 1997-98 "the service came very near to meeting this target". (Home Office Annual Report 1998, pp 95-96). Back

53  Unprinted memorandum from the Probation Partnership Forum. (See list of unprinted memoranda.) Back

54  Appendix 1, para 64. Back

55  Reconvictions of those commencing community penalties in 1993, England and Wales, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 6/97, page 1 and Reconvictions of prisoners discharged from prison in 1993, England and Wales, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 5/97, page 1.  Back

56  ibid., pp. 13-14. See also the discussion in Reducing Offending: an assessment of research evidence on ways of dealing with offending behaviour, Home Office Research Study 187, July 1998, p 98. Back

57  Appendix 7. Back

58  See para 196 below. Back

59  Sherborne House Probation Centre, Inner London Probation Service, p 3. Back

60  Strategies for Effective Offender Supervision, HMIP, Home Office,1998. Back

61  Appendix 15. Back

62  HMIP's report states that "The 'What Works?' debate focussed around a pessimistic assessment of the potential effectiveness of available correctional treatment, made [in an article by Martinson in 1974]....In the years that followed, critics...assembled new and more positive evidence about the effectiveness of some rehabilitative approaches." (p 14, fn 1). Back

63  ibid., pp. 12 and 108. Back

64  Q 700. Back

65  Q 702. Back

66  Q 702. Back

67  Q 857. Back

68  Q 859. Back

69  Qs 862 and 863. Back

70  Appendix 35.. Back

71  ibid.Back

72  We met a woman during our visit to Lancashire Probation Service who lost a daughter in these circumstances and who now meets such drivers who are on a probation programme at the Callum Centre in Blackpool. Back

73  Appendix 1, para 110. Back

74  Costs taken from the Home Office Annual Report 1998, pp 81 and 95. Back

75  Figures for community sentences are targets. The Home Office Annual Report 1998 states that "the service nationally is continuing to keep unit levels below those targeted. However, there remain wide variations in the performance of individual services" (p. 95). Back

76  Appendix 29, para 7.1. Back

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