Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


  SECTION D: OTHER ALTERNATIVES TO PRISON

155. So far, this Report has concentrated on the mainstream community sentences in place: probation orders, community service orders and combination orders. This section looks at other sentences which are, or might be, made available to the courts. We also look at developments in cautioning procedure which could result in fewer offenders coming to court in the first place.

Curfew orders with electronic monitoring

156. As an alternative to custody, electronic monitoring ("tagging") offers exciting possibilities. It is currently being used to implement curfew orders and will soon be used for home detention curfews. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, curfew orders were introduced on a trial basis in Manchester, Norfolk and Reading in July 1995. Those trials were subsequently extended to cover the whole of the counties of Greater Manchester and Berkshire in November 1995 and are progressively being extended to West Yorkshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and the London Boroughs covered by the Middlesex Probation Service. Curfew orders may last for up to six months and require an offender to remain at a specified place, or places, at times set by the court, for between 2 and 12 hours per day. They can be imposed alongside other community sentences. All curfew orders are monitored electronically, through a radio transmitter tagged to an offender's ankle or wrist: this sends signals to a home receiver which is connected to a control centre through a domestic telephone line. The offender's compliance is monitored by a private security company under contract to the Home Office.

157. By the end of the first year of the trials 83 offenders had been tagged; in the second year this figure was 375. By 4 June 1998 the total number of offenders sentenced since the trials began stood at 1,377, of which 852 sentences had been completed, 156 had been revoked, 71 had been revoked through breach,[189] 17 had been revoked for other reasons and 364 were still being monitored.[190] At the end of the second year of trials, Home Office research stated that the curfew order remained a 'rarely used sentence', given to 14 cases per 1,000 in Greater Manchester adult magistrates' courts.[191]

158. Around two-thirds of curfew orders have been made in the Manchester area. When the Committee visited Manchester we met sentencers, police, probation officers and representatives of Securicor Custodial Sentences, who were awarded the contract to administer the trials in Manchester; this gave us a very useful insight into how curfew orders were working on the ground.

159. Mrs Patricia Walmsley, of Securicor, reported that, at the time of our visit in February 1998, over 700 orders had so far been made in Greater Manchester, and that at that time approximately 70 offenders were subject to them. The revocation rate had been between 20% and 25%, although these were not all due to people failing to keep their curfews: eg some orders had been revoked near the end of the order, due to high compliance rates and/or the success of the offender in finding a job, while others had moved from the area and so could not continue with the order. Some of the revocations were due to breaches of the order by the offender. Where an offender is missing for part of a curfew period, but not its entirety, they are given a warning. If they are so absent for a third time, following two warnings, breach proceedings are taken against them and they are returned to court. Approximately 80 per cent of offenders received at least one warning. Should they commit intentional damage against the tagging equipment, be missing for an entire curfew period, or use or threaten violence against a Securicor staff member, breach proceedings are taken regardless of whether the offender has any previous warnings or not.

160. During our time in Greater Manchester, we also visited Securicor's monitoring centre at Hulme, where monitoring goes on continuously. If the offender is not present in the curfew area, or if the equipment is tampered with, this is picked up at the monitoring centre within minutes. As we saw for ourselves, staff at the monitoring centre will then telephone the offenders to try to ascertain explanations for absences/ equipment tampering. They will also go to the offenders' homes to establish what the problem is. Mrs Walmsley explained that, while the equipment is not yet technically perfect, the system tended to lose contact with the signals from offenders' monitoring equipment for seconds at a time only and this allowed for detection of non-attendance during a curfew period within three minutes of its beginning.

161. Inspector Steve Crimmins of Greater Manchester Police stated that the police had been impressed by Securicor's professionalism in its implementation of tagging. For the probation service, Mr Steve Collett, an Assistant Chief Probation Officer, explained that attitudes towards electronic monitoring had changed. He accepted that the service had been sceptical about the use of electronic monitoring when it was first introduced, partly due to the involvement of the private sector, but that confidence in its usefulness had increased, especially as it was now often used with other orders. Offenders found it a tough option and it often provided a useful excuse for them not to mix with peers who could encourage them to commit further crime. Mrs Patricia Walmsley also told us that the need to be in a certain place at a certain time often helped offenders with chaotic lifestyles to restructure their lives. This opinion was confirmed by Mr David Scanlon, Deputy Justices' Clerk, who told us that the perceived toughness of the sentence was evidenced by the reluctance of solicitors to propose it as a sentencing option for their clients.

162. We welcome the introduction of curfew orders with electronic monitoring. After a slow start, it is pleasing to see that over 1,000 orders have now been made, suggesting that sentencers are gaining confidence in the new order. We note the comments from an Assistant Chief Probation Officer in Manchester that, after initial opposition, the probation service there were also gaining confidence in the order. We also note that the police in Manchester were impressed with the professional manner in which curfew orders had been implemented there; so were we. The speedy way in which offenders are chased up if they are not within their curfew area, and the tactful but firm manner of the operators we saw in action, give the right impression to offenders: that this is a punishment they must take seriously. The curfew order trials appear to have been successful and we therefore urge the Government to make them available to courts nationally as soon as possible.

163. Home Detention Curfew The Home Secretary announced in November 1997[192] that electronic monitoring would also be used to enforce new Home Detention Curfews. These allow for the early release of prisoners serving sentences of between 3 months and 4 years. Such prisoners are routinely released half-way through their sentence currently; the new system will mean they will be released a further 2 weeks—2 months early, depending on the length of their sentence. There will be no automatic entitlement to early release: all prisoners to whom this is applicable will be subject to a risk assessment by the Prison Service; those failing will continue their sentence in the normal way. Prisoners released early subject to home detention curfews will be tagged and compelled to abide by the curfew for at least nine hours a day for the length of time that their custodial sentence would otherwise continue. Breaking the curfew will result in re-imprisonment. This initiative is expected to free-up 3000 prison places annually.[193]

164. We note the Government's introduction of Home Detention Curfews allowing for the early release—with tagging—of prisoners serving sentences between 2 months and 4 years. We welcome the Home Detention Curfew initiative which, it is estimated, will-free up 3,000 prison places annually in the context of an otherwise rapidly increasing prison population. It will provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison.

Suspended sentences

165. A suspended sentence is a custodial sentence which does not result in the offender's imprisonment. If imprisonment for less than two years would be an appropriate sentence, but there are exceptional circumstances to the case, the sentence may be suspended for between one and two years. If another offence punishable by imprisonment is committed within that time, the suspended sentence may be put into effect.

166. The use of suspended sentences dropped drastically as a result of an amendment to section 22 of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973, contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which introduced the provision that such sentences could only be imposed in exceptional circumstances from then on. The table below shows the reduced use of suspended sentences:

  Use of Suspended Sentences (All Courts)[194]

Year

No. of fully suspended sentences

1991

  28,138

1992

  22,040

1993

   3,753

1994

   3,224

1995

   3,195

1996

   3,379

1997

   3,417

167. The Justices' Clerks' Society told the Committee that the suspended sentence had virtually disappeared, and regretted this, stating that it "was a very useful penalty at one point".[195] Mr Tim Workman, a Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate explained that the perceived danger of suspended sentences had been that they might be used rather than community sentences, with a subsequent increase in the prison population rather than a fall. However, he also believed that sentencers should be able to make greater use of suspended sentences, arguing that "the more tools one has in one's armoury the better equipped one is to deal with crime".[196] Mr Allan Berg, a stipendiary magistrate we met in Manchester, also called for sentencers to be able to make greater use of suspended sentences. Mrs Anne Fuller of the Magistrates' Association argued, however, that, there "can hardly be a strong case for suspended sentences if we are correctly sentencing and using offender mitigation in the borderline cases so that community sentences can be imposed".[197]

168. Mr Peter Coad, who, as we have seen, was highly sceptical of the ability of community sentences to reduce offending, argued for greater use of suspended sentences: "my suggestion is that the majority of persistent offenders should be given heavy suspended sentences which would not only avoid wasting the time of probation officers, but would probably be a more effective deterrent than a probation order".[198]

169. The restriction of the use of suspended sentences only to those cases where there are exceptional circumstances has removed a useful sentencing option from the courts. We accept that there are potential difficulties in the use of suspended sentences, notably that offenders could be perceived to have gone unpunished. Also, if offenders remain undeterred by the prospect of prison and continue to offend, then there could be an eventual increase in the prison population, making the suspended sentence inappropriate for persistent petty offenders. However, there remain circumstances, particularly where the crime might ordinarily justify a custodial sentence but was a "one-off" and unlikely to be repeated, in which a suspended sentence could be appropriate. We recommend that the Government make provision for sentencers to use suspended sentences more frequently, in appropriate circumstances, as an alternative to custody.

Weekend prison

170. Sir David Ramsbotham told the Committee that he would like to see introduced a new sentence of weekend prison, for those offenders who would otherwise be given "full-time" prison sentences. Such sentences would be particularly appropriate for offenders in employment, who would then have the possibility of retaining their jobs, even though given a prison sentence. Sir David also argued that, as prisons often release prisoners on Friday evenings and do not take in new prisoners until Monday mornings, and as other prisoners are given weekend leave, prisons have spare capacity which could be used for weekend prisoners. He told us: "There is a great deal of merit in doing that because the person keeps his job, keeps the family, but he is disrupted at the weekend, which makes the point on behalf of the community. Also, you are not wasting the facilities which the country has paid for in a prison. The prison is working seven days a week, which is quite right".[199]

171. There was qualified support for this idea from other witnesses. Lord Bingham said: "I have no reservations in principle about that. My own view is that while it is sometimes necessary for punitive or protective purposes to deprive someone of his or her liberty, that should be done to the minimum extent necessary to achieve whatever purpose it is sought to achieve. If one can do that by imprisoning somebody at the weekend and not otherwise, then that is a benefit in my view........ If the administrative problems can be overcome I should have no reservations about the principle. I should not be confident that it would lead to a fall in the number of those sent to prison. I should just have a slight fear that in the kind of case where somebody has a job and has family responsibilities and a sentencer now says those considerations deter them from imposing a sentence of imprisonment which they really ought to for the crime, if it were possible to send somebody to prison just for the weekend so they could keep their job and continue to look after and support their family, they might end up there where they would not otherwise".[200]

172. Mrs Anne Fuller of the Magistrates' Association stated that "it has advantages in that it can keep people in employment but nonetheless it restricts liberty, so it is a fairly tough sentence...... I am sure that there are problems about implementing it, but in terms of addressing the difficulty of overcrowded prisons and trying to ensure that people's employment and family life are not disrupted I believe that it has merit".[201] Mrs Gaynor Houghton-Jones of the Justices' Clerks' Society told us that "those countries which have this provision are quite pleased with the way it works. It could be used for a wide range of offences at the lower end of the scale, perhaps for a breach of trust where someone has stolen a small amount from an employer over a period of time, or perhaps for a very serious drink drive offences where one wants to keep the person in employment but at the same time mark the seriousness of the offence from the point of view of the public at large. However, I believe that there will be problems of implementation".[202]

173. An objection in principle to the idea was raised by Mr Tim Workman: " I would be opposed to the use of prison as a weekend sentence. The effectiveness of prison lies in its immediacy and unpleasantness. I think that to attend by appointment would reduce that pressure that people perceive in terms of prison".[203] Joyce Quin MP, the Prisons and Probation Minister, told us that "the Government certainly has not taken a hard and fast view "[204] on the idea of weekend prison. Home Office evidence suggested that weekend prison might not be effective at reducing the prison population. Surveying weekend prison schemes in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada that work by allowing prisoners out of their cells during the day but require them to be in prison during the evening, the Home Office memorandum stated that "all the systems mentioned...although helping prisoners to cope with release into the community, will have no effect on overcrowding since the inmates still occupy cells."

174. Weekend prison offers the possibility of a prison sentence whilst at the same time allowing offenders to keep or seek employment. However, we recognise that there are a number of difficult practical issues to be resolved concerning its implementation. We therefore recommend that the Home Office instigate a feasibility study to see if weekend prison, as suggested by Sir David Ramsbotham, could be made possible without significant extra costs being incurred.

Fines

175. We have not investigated the use of fines in detail in this Report as our focus is on alternatives to prison, and it is not often the case that a fine will represent a credible alternative sentence for an offender who would otherwise be imprisoned. However, fines are the most frequently used sentences of the courts: the Magistrates' Association told us they were "the most used and useful sentences".[205] However, as we noted at paragraph 31, the use of fines has fallen in the last decade, from 1,598,000 offenders fined in 1986 to 1,073,000 in 1996.[206] Mr Tim Workman suggested that one reason sentencers may have used fines less was concern about the low proportion of them which were collected.[207] He made the point that "unless enforcement and collection can be improved, there is a danger that public confidence in this form of penalty will be eroded and courts will be obliged to impose a higher tariff sentence than would otherwise be appropriate for the offence".[208]

176. Fines are collected and enforced by the magistrates' courts; they are remitted to the Lord Chancellor and paid into the Consolidated Fund. The Home Office gave us the following information regarding sums raised by court imposed fines and road traffic fixed penalties, as well as the amounts written-off as irrecoverable and the level of arrears:

Sums raised by fines and fixed penalties with value of fines written-off and in arrears (£million), 1992-93 to 1997-98[209]

Year

Fines[210]

Fixed penalties

Fines Written-off

Fine Arrears[211]

1992-93

  186.2

  34.0

  23.6

  186.2

1993-94

  142.6

  79.7

  32.6

  212.9

1994-95

  147.6

  65.8

  33.4

  223.2

1995-96

  150.4

  60.8

  29.6

  240.1

1996-97

  144.3

  72.9

  51.7

  248.1

1997-98

  114.8[212]

  52.4[213]

  47.1[214]

  269.4[215]

177. The powers available to the court to enforce payment are as follows:[216]

    (1) review the level of fine and remit all or part of it if the imposing court was not aware of the offender's means or if there has been a change in circumstances;
    (2) issue a distress warrant;
    (3) order a deduction from income support;
    (4) make a money payment supervision order;
    (5) make an attachment of earnings order;
    (6) make an attendance centre order where the defaulter is aged under 25;
    (7) take enforcement action in the High Court or County Court; or
    (8) order detention at the courthouse or police station or order overnight detention at a police station.

Additionally, defaulters may be committed to custody where the offence is punishable by imprisonment and the defaulter has the means to pay forthwith, or the default is through wilful refusal or culpable neglect and all the enforcement actions mentioned in the previous paragraph have been tried or are considered unlikely to succeed. Such custodial sentences may be suspended to allow time for payment.[217]

178. There has been a sharp reduction in the numbers of defaulters given custodial sentences. In 1995 20,157 defaulters were received into prison; in 1996 the figure was 8,555.[218] This was largely a result of a Queen's Bench judgement in November 1995[219] which reinforced the statutory requirement for courts to state why each enforcement measure had failed or not been used before sentencing a defaulter to imprisonment. The Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 contains provisions, currently being piloted in Norfolk and Greater Manchester, allowing courts to impose community service orders, curfew orders or a driving disqualification on fine defaulters in circumstances where they would otherwise be liable to imprisonment.[220]

179. We welcome the reduction in the numbers of fine defaulters sent to prison, and the provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 which should allow for more fine defaulters to be dealt with in the community. We find it unacceptable that large numbers of fines go unpaid and urge the Government to monitor the collection and enforcement of fines by magistrates' courts and ensure that good practice is disseminated. Consideration should be given to increasing incentives for courts to collect fines by allowing them to retain a proportion of the money collected.

Cautioning with restorative justice

180. As well as looking at what action courts can take once an offender is convicted, we looked at an innovative cautioning practice which involved restorative justice principles. A police caution is a formal warning, given orally, by a senior police officer, and can be used where an offender admits guilt, where there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction, where the offender consents, and where it does not seem to be in the public interest to instigate criminal proceedings.[221] In 1996 there were 190,800 cautions given for indictable offences.[222]

181. Traditionally, cautioning consists of a spoken warning and takes a matter of minutes to administer. However, the Committee visited Thames Valley Police which uses restorative justice conferences as part of its cautioning process. These are meetings which bring together offenders, victims, their families and friends, and other representatives of the community to discuss the offence committed and its effects, in a meeting chaired by a trained police officer. As with all police cautioning it requires the consent and admission of guilt of the offender. Thames Valley Police told us that victims often appreciate the opportunity of talking to the person who had offended against them and explain the practical and emotional effects of the crime on them. They also said that offenders can be pleased to have the opportunity to apologise to their victims, and often do not appreciate the harm they have done until the face to face meeting. The police did acknowledge, however, that not all victims or offenders would want to take part in this process.

182. Thames Valley Police stated that research conducted on a similar scheme in Australia showed that offenders left conferences with increased respect for the police and the criminal justice system, and that the process made them more ashamed of their actions than did a court appearance. For victims, attending a conference made them feel that they had been awarded restitution more so than did a court case and that they were less likely to fear revictimisation. Thames Valley Police's own project is being independently assessed by the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research.[223] They stated that "although early days for Thames Valley, all our anecdotal and early evidence suggests that there are real, substantial advantages resulting from our decision to adopt a restorative approach".[224]

183. We welcome the use of cautioning with restorative justice conferences which we saw at Thames Valley Police. Clearly, this approach, which involves bringing offender and victim together, will not be suitable for everyone. However, where offender and victim are willing to talk, restorative justice provides an opportunity for the victim to feel some degree of recompense, and for the offender to appreciate the harm he or she has caused by their actions. We particularly commend Thames Valley Police for having this project independently evaluated. Although this approach is more time-consuming than traditional cautioning, if it successfully reduces reoffending rates it will prove worthwhile. We urge the Home Office to examine the evaluation study when it is available and, if it demonstrates success, to encourage other police forces to follow this innovative approach.


189  Separate figures on the reasons for breaches were collected in all trial areas only from August 1997 Back

190  Official Report, 4 June 1998, col. 303. Back

191  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 92. Back

192  Official Report, 20 November 1997, column 455. Back

193  Joyce Quin MP, Official Report, 15 June 1998, column 13. Back

194  Appendix 34, The Decline In The Use of the Suspended Sentence. Back

195  Q 466. Back

196  Q 468. Back

197  Q 468. Back

198  Appendix 4, para 14. Back

199  Q 23. Back

200  Q 21. Back

201  Q 471. Back

202  Q 473. Back

203  Q 472. Back

204  Q 821. Back

205  Appendix 11, para 1.2. Back

206  Appendix 1, p 7. Back

207  Q 562. Back

208  Appendix 12, para 3. Back

209  Appendix 34, The Enforcement and Collection of Fines, para 2. Back

210  Includes road traffic fixed penalties enforced as fines. Back

211  Includes sums payable by instalment where the payment is not yet due as well as sums subject to enforcement. Back

212  To 31 December 1997. Back

213  ibid. Back

214  Provisional full year figure. Back

215  To 31 December 1997. Back

216  APS 34, The Enforcement and Collection of Fines, para 3. Back

217  ibid., para 4. Back

218  ibid., para 5. Back

219  R v Oldham Justices and another; ex parte Cawley and other applications, Queens Bench Division, 30, 31 October, 28 November 1995, referred to in Home Office Research Study 165, Enforcing financial penalties, Home Office, 1997, p38. Back

220  Appendix 34, The Enforcement and Collection of Fines, para 6. Back

221  Criminal Statistics, England and Wales, 1996, Home Office, p. 219. Back

222  ibid.,p. 104. Back

223  This is being funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Back

224  Restorative Justice, A Balanced Approach, Thames Valley Police, 1997. Back


 
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