Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


  SECTION C: INCREASING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF COMMUNITY SENTENCES

(iii)  Confidence in community sentences

Sentencer Confidence

130. However effective community sentences are at reducing offending and protecting the public, their use is reliant on the confidence of the courts. That is why it is vital that sentencers know exactly what community sentence options are available to them, how such community sentences work and whether they help reduce reoffending rates.

131. Confidence in community sentences requires confidence in those who have the main responsibility for carrying them out—probation officers. Home Office research has indicated that sentencers and the clerks who advise them are generally satisfied with the work of the probation service. A survey was sent to 625 magistrates, 125 justices' clerks, 35 stipendiary magistrates, 30 judges and 20 Crown Court Chief Clerks and had a response rate ranging from 80 per cent to 90 per cent for the different categories. On the principle question of confidence in the probation service, results were generally encouraging:

Question:  How satisfied are you generally with the work of the probation service in your court?[168]


  Lay magistrates

  Justices' clerks

Stipendiaries

Chief

clerks[169]


  Judges

very satisfied

  23

  23

  32

  28

  33

quite satisfied

  66

  73

  57

  67

  52

not very satisfied

  10

   3

  11

   6

  15

not at all satisfied

   0

   0

   0

   0

   0

don't know

   1

   0

   0

   0

   0

question not answered

   0

   1

   0

   0

   0

(Figures are rounded percentages)

132. It is encouraging that the vast majority of sentencers and clerks are satisfied with the work of the probation service, and testament to the hard work of the service. However, given how essential the probation service is to the provision of community sentences and their use by sentencers, it should be an aim of the probation service constantly to improve their performance and the satisfaction sentencers have in them. We note that the Home Office has reduced the target of magistrates' satisfaction with the probation service from 100 per cent to 90 per cent its 1998 Departmental Report, as well as changing the target relating to pre-sentence reports from 80 per cent of sentencers to be very satisfied with the overall usefulness of pre-sentence reports to 90 per cent to be satisfied.[170] It is important that these new more realistic targets are achieved.

133. While general satisfaction with the probation service was high, we were alarmed to see, from a 1995 survey, that sentencers did not visit the probation service to see the work carried out with offenders on the ground as often as might be expected:

Percentage of sentencers who had visited a probation centre/probation office/community sentence placement in the previous two years[171]


  Lay magistrates

  Stipendiaries

  Judges

Probation centre

  41

  18

  48

Probation office

  53

  36

  63

Community sentence placement

  26

   7

  26

134. When questioned on this subject, Lord Bingham said "I do think it is desirable that people should go and have a look at what is actually happening... I am slightly surprised that more have not done so." He undertook to encourage judges to make such visits but reminded the Committee that "judges are under great pressure to try cases. The courts have a backlog, they are open to criticism if the delays build up, so this kind of activity has to get fitted in. It should be fitted in and I totally agree with the point you are making that this is a valuable way of educating oneself into the realities of what one is imposing on others".[172]

135. The survey also asked how often sentencers learned about the outcome of community sentences they had made and whether they needed more information. The results were as follows:

Question:  How often do you learn about the outcome of community sentences you have made?[173]


  Lay magistrates

  Stipendiaries

  Never

  39

  11

  Occasionally

  48

  56

  As often as not

   4

   4

  Frequently

   6

  11

  Always

   2

  19

  Question not answered

   1

   0

(Figures are rounded percentages)

Question:  Do you need to know more about the outcome of your cases?[174]


  Lay magistrates

  Stipendiaries

  Yes

  65

  30

  No

  27

  63

  Don't know

   7

   7

  Question not answered

   2

   0

(Figures are rounded percentages)

136. The Committee visited Teesside to meet participants in the Community Sentence Demonstration Project which has been based there and in Shrewsbury. Its aim is to "show how far changes in approach, within the present legislative framework and within existing resources, can increase sentencer and public confidence in community sentences and the effectiveness of those sentences".[175] The project was a joint initiative involving the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Magistrates' Association, the Justices' Clerks' Society, the Law Society, the Central Probation Council and ACOP. The project began on 1 April 1997 and its first twelve months is being evaluated with an aim to providing information about the need for legislative change.

137. NACRO made the point that feedback to sentencers is important to their confidence, especially given that they might otherwise get an unfairly pessimistic view of community sentences; they told us "sentencers see their failures, in that those who reoffend return to court, sometimes repeatedly, for further offences. Courts do not see their successes—those who do not reoffend after community or financial penalties...If sentencers' confidence in community sentences is to be increased, it is important that they receive more systematic feedback on the success of individuals whom they and their colleagues have sentenced and on the overall success rates of local community supervision programmes".[176]

138. It is essential that sentencers have confidence in community sentences if they are to use them effectively, and to have confidence they must have up to date knowledge. We were alarmed therefore to note the findings of a survey indicating that in two years under half of the lay magistrates and judges surveyed had visited a probation centre and barely a quarter had seen a community service placement; the figures were even lower for stipendiaries. We have been impressed by the community service placements and the probation programmes we have visited, as we believe sentencers would be if they saw more of them. We recommend that all sentencers make regular visits to probation centres and community service placements and that the frequency of visits is monitored by the Lord Chancellor's Department. We welcome the fact that the Lord Chief Justice has already taken action in this regard. We note that sentencers are under pressure to try cases but would suggest that the quality of their decision making in such cases would be enhanced by better knowledge of the sentences they are imposing.

139. We note that almost two-thirds of lay magistrates surveyed would welcome more information about the outcome of their cases (although it is surprising that most stipendiaries do not request such information, especially given that they are the sentencers least likely to have visited a probation centre or community sentence placement). We welcome the Community Sentence Demonstration Project, which has led to more information being communicated to sentencers regarding the community sentence options available to them and the outcome of cases, and look forward to seeing the Home Office evaluation of the project; we trust it will act on the conclusions of the findings and do all it can to improve communication between sentencers and the probation service nationally. We believe it is essential for sentencers to be aware of the results of the sentences they make in terms of their success, or otherwise, in preventing offenders from reoffending. Without such knowledge they remain ignorant of the effectiveness of the various sentencing options available to them.

Public confidence

140. As with sentencers, public confidence is vital if non-custodial sentences are to be used as widely as they might be, and confidence requires at least some understanding of the options available, what kind of sentence those options represent and what kind of crimes are likely to warrant their use. The Home Office's memorandum states that public awareness of non-custodial sentencing options was mixed: "the most widely known are community service orders (69 per cent of respondents) and fines (58 per cent). Only a third identified probation. Others included suspended sentences (30 per cent); compensation (16 per cent); conditional discharges (8 per cent); and electronic tagging (7 per cent)".[177]

141. The public also underestimate the extent to which imprisonment is used. The survey states that 97 per cent of adult males convicted of rape in 1995 were sent to prison, but most respondents thought fewer than 60 per cent were; 61 per cent of convicted adult male house-burglars were imprisoned in 1995, but most respondents thought 30 per cent or fewer were. Also, while survey respondents thought 94 per cent of rapists, 84 per cent of muggers and 80 per cent of burglars should be imprisoned, when asked to choose the most appropriate sentence in a particular case (one where, in reality, a young burglar had been given a two year sentence), only around half chose imprisonment, the remainder choosing between various non-custodial options.[178]

142. Despite this finding, the public still believe that, in general, current sentencing practice is too lenient; 79 per cent believe this to be the case. However, the Home Office memorandum states that "evidence suggests that this tends to be a function of misconceptions about crime (that it is rising rapidly) and justice (belief that the use of imprisonment is falling and underestimation of its current use)".[179]

143. This raises the question of how the public come to form such misconceptions. The Howard League for Penal Reform argued that when he was Home Secretary, Douglas (now Lord) Hurd and his colleagues generated ideas which led to the probation service taking "centre stage", but that "this more moderate climate was subsequently swept away in the torrent of high-pitched rhetoric and the political Dutch auction which has been the hall-mark of criminal policy since the early 1990s".[180] They would presumably concur with the views of NACRO who stated that "steps to inform the public of the current position more accurately, through ministerial speeches and a systematic strategy aimed at national and local media, as well as the production of more accessible sentencing statistics, should form part of a strategy to reduce pressure for further increases in the level of custodial sentencing. More information and publicity highlighting the range of options for dealing with crime and their effectiveness also has an important part to play".[181] The Prisons and Probation Minister agreed that "Ministers' speeches and pronouncements can also help...and we will try and do that as well".[182] Other politicians also have a responsibility to inform public opinion on this issue.

144. The media too has a role to play in its depiction of community sentences. We appreciate the frustration of those probation officers we met around the country who told us that they were dismayed to see references in the press to offenders given community sentences as "walking free". The Lord Chief Justice told us: "I very much hope that the public can be educated and the media can be educated to recognise that community penalties are serious penalties and not getting away with it. After all doing unpaid labour for 240 hours or any significant number of hours is a deprivation of liberty and is a serious punishment".[183]

    145. We also recognise the point made by ACOP that media discussion should recognise that:

    "- 34 per cent of those under supervision have a significant drugs problem;

    - 35 per cent had an alcohol problem; some have both;

    - 75 per cent are unemployed;...

    - a quarter have significant debts;...

    - 12 per cent have learning difficulties—a rather larger proportion have significant literacy problems;

    - 33 per cent had been in care".[184]

146. Mrs Anne Fuller, of the Magistrates' Association, made the point that sentencers also have a role in influencing public opinion. She said: "as to changing the public's attitude, everybody has to do very much more. Government needs to get the message across about the limits of legislation. There is a Magistrates in the Community project under which magistrates visit community groups and do sentencing exercises with them... We are also encouraging local benches to try to establish liaison with the local media, because we certainly cannot do it all on our own by means of our project. The project is a growing one. There are between 3,000 and 4,000 magistrates involved in visiting schools and community groups. Much more needs to be done so that the public does not make unfounded criticisms based on ignorance of what the law allows us to do for certain offences".[185]

147. The probation service must also take the initiative in publicising its efforts. The Prisons and Probation Minister stated "it can be effective, certainly at a regional and local level, if some effort is made by probation services to highlight, for example, new schemes which are particularly demanding or particular services that offenders have provided to a community as a result of doing some kind of probation work".[186]

148. Public confidence in community sentences is critically important and the probation service, politicians, the media and sentencers all have a role in shaping it. We welcome the assurance by the Prisons and Probation Minister that she and her colleagues will help to publicise the good work undertaken by the probation service and we look forward to them doing so. Other politicians should also play their part in informing the public about the work being carried out with offenders in the community. We commend the work of those magistrates' benches who are trying better to inform the public about sentencing decisions, and we urge the Lord Chancellor's Department to disseminate good practice in this respect and urge other benches to follow it. We are aware as a result of our visits to probation services around the country that some of them are becoming increasingly adept at drawing the attention of sentencers and politicians to the work they do; we think the next challenge for the probation service is to focus their attention on the wider public and we would urge them to take the kind of action recommended by the Prisons and Probation Minister in publicising new and rigorous initiatives taken to deal with offenders.

149. The media should act responsibly in their depiction of community sentences, and not give the misleading impression that those sentenced to community penalties have "got off" or "walked free". We have learned a great deal about the work of the probation service by visiting programmes on the ground. The media, too, could benefit from such visits and we urge them to do so.

The language used to describe community sentences

150. In a speech to the National Probation Convention in November 1997, the Home Secretary said that attention needed to be paid to "the public visibility and credibility of community sentences as punishment". He argued that the language used was often misleading; for instance that 'community service' gave the quite misleading impression that this sentence involved some kind of voluntary service". He also argued that to use the term 'client' about offenders gave the false impression "that probation staff are there primarily to work for the benefit of offenders, with the public and the victims' interest subsidiary to the offenders". Mrs Gaynor Houghton-Jones, of the Justices' Clerks' Society, made the same point that the language used to describe community sentences was widely misunderstood: "the way that we talk about particular community penalties is important. Does anyone know what a combination order is? It sounds like a type of nineteenth century underwear. We need to be more imaginative in the description of orders".[187]

151. The Lord Chief Justice also thought that the name "community service" was unfortunate, and thought it should be renamed "criminal work order". He explained why: "this was actually a suggestion put to me by a lay justice in Wiltshire at a meeting I attended. She made the point that it is an order—there is nothing voluntary about it—it is an order which is made because a crime has been committed and it involves work. I think that is a good title for it and it would quite possibly alter the perception".[188]

152. We agree wholeheartedly with the Home Secretary's comments regarding the language used in relation to community sentences; in particular we deplore the use of the term 'client' to describe criminals who are serving sentences. We also agree that the term 'community service' carries with it inappropriate connotations of voluntary activity. We recommend adoption of the suggestion made by the Lord Chief Justice that it should be retitled 'criminal work order'.

Conclusions on effectiveness

153. This section of the report has examined what we have seen to be the key issues in increasing the effectiveness of community sentences: identifying and disseminating the most successful elements of such sentences, strengthening the means of enforcement, supporting the operation of the probation services, and enhancing the confidence in them of both sentencers and the public.

154. We have made a number of recommendations designed to strengthen them. While these actions would undoubtedly help improve the public's perception of community sentences, what the public really want to hear is that these sentences are effective in reducing crime. The most compelling argument that could possibly be put forward for community sentences is that they are consistently more effective than prison in reducing reoffending. Evidence exists that some community sentences are more effective, but we note again the findings of the Inspectorate that these programmes are, overwhelmingly, not adequately evaluated in order to be able to put forward this argument with conviction. We stress again the vital need for the probation service to make sure their community sentence programmes are evaluated properly and that the lessons regarding which types of programmes are most effective are learned and disseminated as widely as possible.


168  Measuring the Satisfaction of Courts with the Probation Service, Home Office Research Study 144, 1995, p 29. Back

169  Crown Court Chief Clerks. Back

170  Home Office Annual Report 1998, p 96. Back

171  Measuring the Satisfaction of Courts with the Probation Service, Home Office Research Study 144, 1995, pp 32-33. Back

172  Qs 35 and 36. A note subsequently received stated that Lord Bingham "would encourage judges to visit probation centres and community service projects to improve their knowledge of the ... non-custodial sentences they imposed." (Q 36, footnote 1). We understand he has now taken this action. Back

173  Measuring the Satisfaction of Courts with the Probation Service, Home Office Research Study 144, 1995, pp 32-33. Back

174  ibid. Back

175  Appendix 1, para 160. Back

176  Appendix 2. Back

177  Appendix 1, para 105. Figures are from the 1996 British Crime Survey. Back

178  ibid., paras 106-108. Back

179  ibid., para 110. Back

180  Appendix 8. Back

181  Appendix 9. Back

182  Q 867. Back

183  Q 656. Back

184  Appendix 2, section 7. Back

185  Q 530. Back

186  Q 867. Back

187  Q 544. Back

188  Q 657. Back


 
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Prepared 10 September 1998