Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


Memorandum by the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales


  The Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales supports the principle that there should be diversity in the sentencing options available to the judiciary. This allows all the factors in a case to be considered when determining the sentence. Nonetheless we have serious concerns about the apparent direction of this inquiry given that its terms of reference identifies one of the background objectives to be "to reduce the prison population".

  It is our submission that for the vast majority of convicted criminals serving prision sentences there is no effective alternative to imprisonment. Indeed, we feel that there are many serving non-custodial sentences who should be in prison. This is especially so with regard to persistent offenders. To reduce the prision population by the imposition of other sentences on such people would increase the number of criminals at liberty to continue their criminal activity.

  In our opinion, prison works. It is effective in addressing the primary objectives of sentencing policy. No other form of sentence does this as well in comparison. We would encourage the greater use of imprisonment rather than reducing it.


  The primary objectives of sentencing policy are to:

    —  prevent re-offending by the criminal, in both the short term and the long term;

    —  punish or penalise the offender;

    —  act as a deterrent to others; and

    —  reassure the public and thus instil confidence in the criminal justice system.

  The overall aim is to reduce crime.

  Let us examine each of these objectives in turn and consider each in relation to how it is served by the use of custodial and non-custodial sentences.


  Whenever a debate on sentencing takes place the measure of the effectiveness of any particular sentence almost always seems to be the re-offending rate associated with it. The other objectives, particularly that of punishing the criminal, are rarely discussed. As a consequence important considerations in determining what sentences should be available are sidelined or deliberately evaded.

  We accept that it is easier to measure whether a person re-offends following a sentence than to obtain a quantitative assessment of the impact of the sentence on the other objectives, but that should not reduce their importance in the debate.

  The fact that this happens is also surprising because research has shown, time and again, that there is no significant difference between long term (usually two years and more) re-offending rates associated with custodial and non-custodial sentences.

  Even if there was a difference, assertions that non-custodial sentences are more effective by virtue of lower re-offending rates than custodial sentences are wholly fallacious. The point is that in comparing the two, some social scientists are trying to compare two entirely different populations. The vast majority of those in prison are there because they are persistent offenders who have served the gamut of non-custodial sentences and have not reformed, going on to commit further crimes. They have already shown themselves to be unreceptive to the various non-custody based programmes intended to help them stop re-offending. How, then, can it be claimed that they form a comparator group for those who have shown themselves to be willing to change their lifestyle before they are imprisoned?

  There is a great deal said about re-offending rates but we believe that the above clearly shows that more weight is given them than they deserve when endeavouring to assess the effectiveness of various sentences.

  Having said that, there is a valid comparison between the two individual groups worthy of comment. That is that in the short term we can guarantee the absence of re-offending against the public by those in prison—whilst they are in prison (accepting that a few crimes are committed against inmates and prison staff in prisons). In other words they are incapacitated from committing additional crimes. Furthermore the removal of one member of a criminal network has a disruptive effect on the activities of other members, even if only temporarily, and so crime is reduced even more.

  Conversely, we cannot be so assured that those serving non-custodial sentences are not re-offending whilst still serving that type of sentence. Indeed, many of those who re-offend do so whilst in the process of serving their non-custodial sentence, although that may not come to light until some time afterwards. There are striking similarities here with re-offending whilst on bail, which serves to indicate the propensity of such criminals to carry on offending.

  Lastly on this matter, recent research has shown that for those who have been sentenced to imprisonment, the prospect of receiving a second term has been very influential in formulating their intention not to re-offend.


  Punishment is an important issue because it can affect the other objectives. If criminals are seen or perceived to have escaped justice through not being punished severely enough, the deterrent effect is diminished and offenders commit more crimes. Ultimately crime increases.

  Non-custodial sentences, some more than others, are regarded by many to be "soft options" and not a punishment at all. This may be totally erroneous but the perception remains and is reinforced by the way such sentences are portrayed in the media. Repeatedly, formal cautions (renamed "final warnings" in the Crime and Disorder Bill) administered to first time offenders are reported with the words, ". . . let off with a caution . . ."

  Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence which shows that criminals, themselves, do not regard some non-custodial sentences as punishment. So they continue to commit crimes until eventually they find themselves in custody, either on remand or having been sentenced. Few regard imprisonment in any way other than as a punishment.


  It follows that if sentences are seen, or considered widely, to be too lenient then they are unlikely to act as a deterrent to would-be criminals. The reason most people do not commit offences has little to do with sentencing but is a reflection of their own personal values. However, for those who might be tempted into crime, the more punitive the likely penalty the more effective the deterrent.


  The 14th British Social Attitute Report, published in November 1997, revealed that the public expects the government to continue to be tough on crime and that there is growing support for stiffer sentences, meaning greater use of imprisonment.

  The message is clear. There is little public acceptance of non-custodial sentences as a means of dealing with criminals, particularly the persistent offenders. People expect to feel safe from crime and see imprisonment as the most effective way of securing this. Thus any reduction in the use of prison sentences will lead to a loss of confidence in the government and the criminal justice system, which includes the police service. Along with this will come an increase in the fear of crime and a lowering of the quality of life for many people. The incidence of vigilante action could also increase.

  Some commentators argue that it is wrong to listen to populist notions on sentencing but we contend that without public confidence in the whole system people will not support it and will not contribute in the fight against crime. Without that support and contribution the authorities will make little impact on the level of crime.


  Non-custodial sentences are not publicly accepted as a means of punishment, they do not appear to have a significant deterrent effect, they cannot incapacitate criminals in the short term nor are they more effective in preventing long term re-offending, and they do not seem to reassure the public. On the other hand imprisonment is regarded as a punishment, it has a deterrent value, it does incapacitate criminals whilst they are in prison, it is a factor in determining long term re-offending, and it does serve to reassure the public that the system is protecting them.


  Analysis of the prison population and of the crime figures over the last 40 or so years reveals some interesting relationships.

  Firstly, as the relative prison population has declined so the level of crime has risen. During the period 1950 to 1993 the number of prisoners per 1,000 crimes fell from about 40 to 10. Simultaneously, the number of crimes per 100,000 of population rose from below 2,000 to over 10,000.

  We acknowledge that many factors may contribute to increases in crime and some criminologists attribute the changes to social factors. However, it seems significant to us that since 1993 the level of crime has been falling at the same time that there has been tougher sentencing by the courts and the prison population has been increasing. It is difficult to identify a substantial change in social factors during that short time which would explain the situation.

  Clearly the police have been more effective in targeting criminals and crime prevention measures have had a limited impact, but these are insufficient alone to explain the dramatic changes. It is our conclusion that the severity of sentencing does have a direct bearing on the level of crime. This is endorsed by recent studies in America.

  Secondly, the recent rise in prison population mainly relates to a few specific categories of criminal, namely those who have committed the most serious of offences. Between 1986 and 1997 there have been substantial rises in the number of sentenced prisoners for these offences:
Violence6,600 to 10,800
Sexual1,900 to 4,200
Robbery3,400 to 8,300
Drugs2,800 to 7,400

  For the same period there have been decreases in relation to the following:
Burglary8,800 to 6,600
Theft7,400 to 5,900

  Thus there has been a total increase of sentenced prisoners from 36,400 to 48,800 in the last 11 years. However the real upsurge did not actually begin until 1994. Interestingly, the number on remand has not increased to such a large extent relatively (10,100 to about 11,600).

  The figures show that the growing number of offenders imprisoned for serious crime accounts for a large proportion of the increased overall prison population. How can society afford to adopt a position which is likely to result in more of these type of criminal being free to continue committing serious crimes? It cannot.

  So, in order to reduce the number in prison, the authorities would need to target those who commit the more minor offences but, as explained above, these criminals are the persistent offenders who have previously shown that they do not, or will not, respond to non-custodial programmes. They will continue to offend. The likelihood is that the downward trend in the level of crime will be reversed. Crime will increase.


  As stated in the introduction, we support the availability of a range of sentencing options to the courts. That includes the system of warnings and non-custodial penalties proposed in the Crime and Disorder Bill. Nonetheless, it is our view that these are not alternatives to imprisonment, rather they are options to be adopted for minor crimes where the offender does not have a proven record of persistent offending and where there is a real and substantial prospect of the criminal responding to the programme for reform linked to many of them.

  That last caveat is crucial. Research has shown that, unless there is a proper assessment of an individual and unless the sentence is progressed in a manner which takes account of the capabilities and needs of the individual (and this includes finding the right probation officer to supervise the person), a positive outcome to the sentence is unlikely.

  Has the probation service got the time and resources to undertake such work? At this time it clearly has not. The proposals in the Crime and Disorder Bill, if enacted, will increase the burden on the probation service even more. The need for more resources will be even more essential.

  Electronic tagging and home curfew orders have been piloted in a few places during the last year or so. The Crime and Disorder Bill includes provisions to release convicted criminals from prison early provided they are willing and appropriate candidates for home curfews and electronic tagging. We have some real concerns about this.

  The pilot studies are yet to be conclusive. Whilst there has been a growth in the number of orders being made and an improvement in the number of those completing the orders, there is no indication of whether those criminals have continued to offend. Indeed, one of our misgivings concerns the ability for these people to continue to offend at those times when they are not confined to their homes under the terms of a curfew. The jury is still out with regard to the efficacy of electronic tagging.

  Moreover, electronic tagging and home curfew orders may only be imposed for a maximum of six months, a relatively short period. The average sentence imposed in the trial areas is much less than this. Clearly this is not an effectual alternative to imprisonment.

  In respect of early release, we see this as nothing more than a cost cutting exercise disguised behind the argument that released prisoners will learn to lead a disciplined and lawful life by having to conform to the restrictions placed on them. If that is so, we contend that there is no need to release these offenders early but to impose the restriction after they have served their sentence, bearing in mind that those to whom this would apply will have been released having served only half the sentence meted out by the court.


  We are unable to comment on the comparative costs of custodial and non-custodial sentences. Nonetheless we wish to widen the discussion on cost to include the hidden cost of crime. It seems to us that this element is always avoided, partly because it is difficult to determine with any accuracy, but primarily because the government and the various agencies involved are not accountable for it. The victims always bear the cost of crime.

  It is difficult to estimate the cost of a crime but attempts to do so in pure financial terms conservatively calculate the average figure to be around £5,000 per crime, taking into account the cost of the investigation and the processing of a case and the financial loss to the victim. In more serious cases the cost is significantly higher. Murder investigations, for example, cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

  These figures do not reveal the whole cost—the human cost of being a victim of crime. However, that cost should not be ignored simply because it cannot be calculated in financial terms.

  American studies have concluded that between 15 and 21 crimes, of varying seriousness, are prevented for each extra criminal imprisoned. That amounts to the saving of a substantial amount of money and human distress.


  Prisons have been described, by some, as universities of crime where minor criminals graduate into hardened criminals through making contact with and learning from other inmates. The argument continues that once released from prison these criminals go on to commit more serious crimes or are more skilful in committing offences.

  We would counter this by saying that whilst inside prison they are not committing crime whereas those serving non-custodial sentences are continuing to associate with other active criminals, learning new skills and practising them as frequently as possible in the "workplace". They are honing their skills on their victims; prisoners are not.

  To maintain the analogy, in prison those who wish to may be able to learn the theory but those outside are serving an apprenticeship with the emphasis on hands-on experience.

  It is crucial therefore that this Home Affairs Committee Inquiry considers the impact of any proposals it might receive on the level of crime. We have endeavoured to show that there is a real risk of crime increasing if fewer criminals are imprisoned. Prison does work, especially in relation to those who are persistent offenders. A rush to reduce the prison population by the increased use of non-custodial sentences would undermine the battle against criminality in this country.

  Finally, costs should not be calculated in financial terms alone, although we appreciate that there are limited funds available in the public purse. The personal and human cost of crime to the victims must be taken into consideration.

January 1998


  Crime and Disorder Bill.

  H.O. Statistical Bulletin. Issue 19/96. September 1996. "The 1996 British Crime Survey"

  H.O. Statistical Bulletin. Issue 23/97. October 1997. "Notifiable Offences, July 1996 to June 1997"

  H.O. Research Findings No. 4/93. "The National Prison Survey 1991: Main Findings"

  H.O. Research Findings No. 8/94. "Findings from the International Crime Survey"

  H.O. Research Findings No. 12/94. "Explaining Reconviction Rates: A Critical Analysis"

  H.O. Research Findings No. 14/94. "Trends in Crime: Findings from the 1994 British Crime Survey"

  H.O. Research Findings No. 61/97. "Changing Offenders' Attitudes and Behaviour: What Works?"

  H.O. Research Bulletin. Special Edition. No. 36/94. "Prisons and Prisoners"

  H.O. Research Study No. 153. 1996. "Fitting Supervision to Offenders: Assessment and Allocation Decisions in the Probation Service"

  H.O. Research Study No. 167. 1997. "Offenders on Probation"

  H.O. Research Study No. 177. 1997. "Electronic Monitoring in Practice: The Second Year of the Trial of Curfew Orders"

  H.O. Web Site: prispop.htm at Data on prison population and trends. January 1998.

  Institute of Economic Affairs, Health and Safety Unit. 1997. "Does Prison Work?"

  14th British Social Attitude Report. November 1997. "British Social Attitudes: The End of Conservative Values?"

  Fraser, David. "Police Review" 7th November 1997. "Custody Pays"

  Ungoed-Thomas, Jon. "Sunday Times" 11th January 1998. "A Nation of Thieves"

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Prepared 25 August 1998