Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report

List of Conclusions and Recommendations

249. Our conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

The use of custodial sentences and the prison population

1.  The increased prison population places enormous strains on the Prison Service and, given the budget constraints in which it operates, has an adverse effect on the regimes of prisons and the amount of rehabilitative work which can be done in them. An indication of this is the reduction in the number of hours prisoners are spending in purposeful activity. The Government must not allow the rapidly increasing prison population to diminish the quality of regimes and must be prepared to fund the Service to this end. We welcome the fact that the target for purposeful activity for 1998/99 has been increased (paragraph 16).

2.  The rapidly escalating prison population makes it of paramount importance to investigate credible alternatives to custody and to use them wherever appropriate. Prison will always be necessary for the most dangerous and/or persistent criminals, but it must be closely targeted on them, with other offenders being given non-custodial sentences which are effective and in which sentencers and the public have confidence (paragraph 17).

3.  We note the insistence of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons that there are many people in custody who do not need to be there. We do not seek to question the judgements of sentencers but we do ask the Government to consider urgently the use and desirability of custodial sentences for those offenders—young offenders and female offenders—mentioned by Sir David Ramsbotham (paragraph 18).

4.  We emphatically reject the suggestion [made to us by one set of witnesses] that a prison population of 200,000 is either desirable or feasible (paragraph 19).

Probation hostels

5.  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 (paragraph 44).

Protecting the public

6.  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 (paragraph 45).

Probation Service access to police records

7.  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 (paragraph 60).


8.  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 (paragraph 61).

Assessing the effectiveness of community sentences

9.  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 (paragraph 62).

Punishment and retribution

10.  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 (paragraph 65).


11.  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 (paragraph 67).

12.  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 (paragraph 68).

National Standards

13.  We agree with ACOP that National Standards are a minimum basic set of requirements. We were therefore alarmed to discover how frequently they are not adhered to. We recognise that limited resources affect compliance rates with National Standards .... However, we urge all Chief Probation Officers to make every possible effort to meet these basic requirements. We welcome the introduction of two Key Performance Indicators which will be used to assess the performance of the probation service in relation to National Standards concerning first contact with offenders, and breach action. We recommend that the National Standards are reviewed on a regular basis and that independent figures from outside the probation service and the Home Office help conduct these reviews (paragraph 79).

Enforcement of community sentences

14.  The available statistics relating to the number of offenders who fail to complete community sentences do not make it clear exactly what proportion of offenders successfully complete the orders; what proportion are breached; what proportion are discharged early for good progress; and what proportion fail to complete but are not brought before the courts to be breached. The Home Office should ensure that such information is collected and published (paragraph 83).

15.  Strict enforcement of community sentences is vital if they are to represent a credible alternative to prison and retain the confidence of sentencers and the public. If community sentences are to credible they must be enforced stringently. It is therefore entirely unacceptable that local probation services are, on average, taking breach action in accordance with the National Standards relating to probation orders in barely a quarter of cases. The Home Office should set a minimum target for all local probation services to comply with these standards, ensure that the Inspectorate assesses each local service on this every year and that it requires publication of the results, and take action against those which fail to meet the target. Consideration should be given to reworking the funding formula for local probation services to provide an incentive for services to meet this target (paragraph 87).

Returning offenders to court

16.  It is essential that offenders who breach community sentences are returned to court quickly. It is not satisfactory that warrants take so long to enforce, and command so little confidence amongst sentencers and probation officers. We recommend that the Home Office institutes a new target and Key Performance Indicator for police services for the time taken to execute warrants, and that it monitors the amount of time taken to do so on a force by force basis. We also recommend that civil enforcement agencies be used to execute warrants on a trial basis and that their performance be assessed against that of the police in terms of speed and cost-effectiveness (paragraph 91).

The courts' powers to deal with offenders who breach

17.  We recommend that the Home Office introduce an increased range of options for sentencers to use where offenders breach community sentences and which, once imposed, would allow the resumption of the community sentence (paragraph 97).

18.  We accept that there will be times when the breach is of sufficient seriousness to merit a revocation of the original community sentence, and that in these circumstances the courts can impose any punishment which might have been made at the original time of sentencing. However, we note that where the original court cannot impose imprisonment, and where the offender has blatantly flouted the terms of their community sentence, few effective sanctions are available. We therefore recommend that the Home Office rectify this situation and ensure that offenders who flagrantly breach the terms of community sentences may be sent to prison, either by increasing the powers of courts on revocation, or by introducing a new offence of breaching a community sentence which would attract a prison sentence (paragraph 98).

"What Works?"

19.  Such evidence as there is suggests that when certain factors are present in the content and implementation of probation programmes, they can help to reduce reoffending. Community sentences, therefore, have the potential to be more effective than prisons. We congratulate HMIP in its continuing efforts to ensure that all probation services follow "What Works?" principles and urge the Home Office to join with the Inspectorate in putting pressure on all services to incorporate these principles into their work; adherence to "What Works?" principles should be a National Standard (paragraph 103).

Pre-sentence reports

20.  Although it may not be the case that pre-sentence reports never propose custodial sentences, it remains the case that they rarely do so explicitly. We recommend that National Standards be amended so that pre-sentence reports not only have to make it clear where non-custodial sentences have been considered to be inappropriate, but that they state explicitly that "a custodial option appears to be the only option available to the court", or words to that effect (paragraph 108).

The professionalism of the probation service

21.  We are pleased to note that the vast majority of sentencers are satisfied with the work of the probation service and that there is widespread recognition that the performance of the probation service has improved since the 1970s, when it appeared to have lost sight of its primary duty to protect society. During our visits to probation services we were consistently impressed by the dedication demonstrated by probation officers, and by their realisation that protecting the public must be their priority (paragraph 109).

Resources and caseloads

22.  In so far as cuts in resources for the probation service have led to genuine efficiency savings, then they need not be a cause of concern, but we note the view from some quarters of the service that the cuts have gone significantly beyond this (paragraph 118).

23.  It must also be a cause of concern that .... the current funding situation means that probation services cannot meet National Standards—the "basic minimum set of requirements", as ACOP called them. If, despite increasing their efficiency, the probation service is consistently failing to meet these standards, the Government should ensure it has the resources to do so (paragraph 119).

24.  We welcome the financial provision made for the probation service in the Home Secretary's announcement of 21 July 1998, following the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which should make possible some real expansion in the work of the service. However, we note continuing concern from within the service as to the extent to which it will be able to realise the programme of reforms under the Crime and Disorder Bill. As the various reforms are brought in the Government must ensure that probation services are properly funded to enable them to achieve their full intended effect (paragraph 122).

25.  We recommend that the funding formula for individual probation services be re-examined so that probation services are not discouraged from developing imaginative new approaches to reducing offending (paragraph 124).

The organisation of the probation service

26.  We look forward to the outcome of the prison-probation review. We note with interest the requests put to us by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and by NAPO for the creation of a single probation service. We appreciate the caution expressed by the Chief Inspector of Probation concerning the local nature of crime, but we also note that he perceived advantages in the creation of a single service (paragraph 129).

Sentencer confidence

27.  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 (paragraph 138).

28.  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 (paragraph 139).

Public confidence

29.  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 think the next challenge for the probation service is to focus its 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 (paragraph 148).

30.  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 (paragraph 149).

31.  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' (paragraph 152).

32.  What the public really want to hear is that community 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 (paragraph 154).

Curfew orders with electronic monitoring

33.  We welcome the introduction of curfew orders with electronic monitoring .... We 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 (paragraph 162).

34.  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 (paragraph 162).

Home detention curfew

35.  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 (paragraph 164).

Suspended sentences

36.  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 (paragraph 169).

Weekend prison

37.  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 (paragraph 174).


38.  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 (paragraph 179).

Cautioning with restorative justice

39.  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 (paragraph 183).

Young offenders

40.  It is essential that courts have the requisite powers to deal with young offenders and the appropriate range of sentences, and this undoubtedly includes a need for custodial sentences and secure accommodation for those young people who present the most serious threat to society .... We note that the responsibilities of the Youth Justice Board are to be extended to include the commissioning of secure accommodation for juveniles and that it will work to improve this accommodation. We welcome this, but note the concerns expressed to us that there is insufficient secure accommodation for young people and urge the Government to rectify this (paragraph 193).

41.  Once again, we note that it is vital that all projects such as these are rigorously assessed in order to determine which elements of their work are most successful, with a view to replicating them elsewhere. We note that intensive work such as this is more expensive than conventional probation, but the possible savings, in terms of reduced offending in the future and less crime, and when compared to prison, make such schemes worthwhile, if their effectiveness can be proven (paragraph 197).

42.  We support the way in which the proposals in the Crime and Disorder Bill seek to address the problems of youth crime by enhancing the range of non-custodial options open to the courts .... We are concerned that adequate resources be available for any extra burdens imposed by the new orders .... The Government has made fighting youth crime a priority and we applaud it for doing so. It would be unfortunate if the agencies charged with this fight—amongst which the probation service is in the vanguard—were unable to do so because of insufficient resources. We do not yet know whether this will be the case, but we will be expecting Ministers to monitor the situation closely (paragraphs 203 and 204).

Drug misusing offenders

43.  While we accept that drug traffickers and dealers will often have to be imprisoned we note the argument of the Lord Chief Justice that prison is not, generally, effective in reducing inmates' drug habits and that long term protection of the public could be more effectively achieved by giving some offenders community sentences in which they will get help in breaking their habits. Encouraging evidence exists to suggest that some probation programmes can achieve a stabilisation or reduction in drug use in 80 per cent of cases. We commend the work of those like the Bolton Drug Misusing Offenders Project which does so by engaging in extensive inter-agency work (paragraph 213).

44.  We welcome the introduction of drug treatment and testing orders, and particularly the fact that the courts will be able to monitor the progress which offenders make in breaking their habits. Given the encouraging research that suggests that treatment can stabilise or reduce addiction in the majority of cases we think it is a priority that such treatment be available. We note that the drug treatment and testing orders are to be piloted and we urge the Government, pending the results of those pilot schemes, to ensure that adequate resources are available to extend the orders nationally. Given the alarming extent of crime related to drug misuse we believe that public spending in this area would be cost-effective in the longer term. We therefore recommend that the Government make it an objective that all drug misusing offenders given community sentences have access to appropriate treatment (paragraph 217).

Women offenders

45.  We recognise the importance of providing alternatives to prison, and probation programmes in particular, which tackle the problems presented by women offenders specifically. We note with concern, again, that limited resources have meant that these programmes have not been as widespread as they should have been. We welcome the fact that this situation appears to be improving and urge the Home Office to monitor and encourage the provision of these services, in order to ensure that a credible alternative to prison is available nationally for women offenders (paragraph 225).

Diversion from crime

46.  As well as looking at what criminal justice agencies should do with offenders once they have committed crimes, we feel that much greater attention should be concentrated on what can be done to divert young people who are at risk of offending away from a life of crime (paragraph 238).

47.  We are pleased to note the support of the Home Secretary and the Prisons and Probation Minister for work aimed at diverting young people from crime, and welcome the fact that the new Youth Offending Teams should make it easier for this work to be done on an inter-agency basis. However, unlike the Prisons and Probation Minister, we are not convinced that even working together these agencies will have adequate resources for this work to the extent where it could really be effective. If ever there were a case for Government taking a long-term perspective—and indeed, being tough on the causes of crime—this is it. Relatively modest expenditure now could bring extensive savings in the future, but this requires political will and farsightedness .... We welcome the prospect of extra funding for this kind of diversion work announced by the Home Secretary following the Comprehensive Spending Review and we look forward to such work being accorded a much higher priority than ever before (paragraphs 240 and 241).

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