Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


Memorandum by Mr Colin H Roberts, University of Oxford


  The Probation Studies Unit (PSU) of the University's Centre for Criminological Research was commissioned by ACOP to summarise evidence relevant to an inquiry into alternatives to prison sentences, and this paper has been prepared in response. It should be emphasised that the views expressed are those of the author in consultation with Dr Ros Burnett and other members of the PSU, and not necessarily those of ACOP. If invited, the author will be willing to give oral evidence to the Committee and to answer any questions relating to this paper.


  This paper is focused on the effectiveness of sentences in reducing the likelihood of re-offending. Particular emphasis is given to the actual and potential contribution of the Probation Service in helping to achieve this objective.

The paper has three central arguments:


  Criminological research has established that the majority of people who are convicted of committing offences respond to existing sanctions and social controls, while a small percentage of persistent offenders are responsible for a high percentage of all criminal convictions and the majority of the most serious offences. Further, there is substantial evidence of the main correlates of different stages of criminal careers (onset, persistence and desistence). Although many correlates of persistent criminal behaviour are linked to events in the past (such as poor parenting) or static variables (such as age at time of the first offence), persistence in criminal behaviour and increased seriousness in the nature of offences committed are associated with dynamic social, cognitive and behavioural factors. These "dynamic" factors are susceptible to modification and influence. Sentencing policy and decisions should, therefore, have regard to the best means of achieving such modification and influence, in order to effect reduction in re-offending rates and the amount of serious crime which is committed. There is a need to focus on the "criminogenic" characteristics of persistent offenders and variables associated with desistence, and to use interventions that will promote motivation to change and help prevent relapse.

 (2)   Community sentences are largely more appropriate than imprisonment for dealing with factors associated with persistence in offending, and encouraging desistence.

  Evidence on the comparative effects of existing disposals reveals that community sentences are more geared to dealing with these "criminogenic" and desistence factors than are prison sentences. Probation Orders have the greatest potential because of their versatility and potential to be used in highly specific and individualised ways. They also enable probation services to work in partnership with other agencies in the community. And there is a growing body of international research evidence on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural programmes as components of Probation Orders. It may be that the potential effectiveness of other community sentences, particularly Combination Orders, Community Service Orders and Senior Attendance Centre Orders, is greater than has been fully realised. There is a need for more research into specific aspects of all existing community sentences so that the best models can be matched to offenders and consistently implemented. For example, the potential value of Electronic Monitoring for use in conjunction with Probation and Combination Orders in appropriate cases, merits further investigation.

 (3)   A dramatic reduction in the rate and seriousness of re-offending could best be achieved by improvements to probation practice, together with opportunities to embrace new developments.

  Recent advances in probation service practice should not be underestimated. Developments within all services include: a more consistent and explicit focus on working with offenders to modify patterns of thought and behaviour associated with their offending; the development and increased use of group work programmes; and a great expansion in inter-agency co-operation and partnership projects. Improvements have, so far, not been uniform across all services, but if all services were able to reach the standard of current best practice, then the resulting impact on the rate and seriousness of re-offending could be expected to be considerable. There is a need for consistently high quality supervision that is focused on criminogenic and desistence factors and the promotion of motivation and relapse prevention, and delivered in a variety of contexts: one-to-one supervision, group programmes, hostels, inter-professionally (eg with psychiatrists and psychologists) and via partnerships with other organisations. Probation Services should be encouraged to embrace new developments (eg selective use of electronic monitoring as a new positive dimension to Probation or Combination Orders; collaborative delivery of Senior Attendance Centre Orders to a wider range of offenders). Further, Probation Services are well positioned to contribute to other means of reducing the prison population through their work within prisons, their responsibilities for through-care and licence supervision, and their role in providing bail information and bail hostel beds. A sufficient number and combination of skilled staff and adequate resources are required to ensure high quality interventions with persistent offenders and a sustained impact on re-offending rates.


  There are clearly many salient issues that need careful consideration in an inquiry into the potential benefits of the different sentences for offenders, in particular those which might be considered alternatives to imprisonment. This submission does not attempt to address all of the issues, but, rather, concentrates on some key ones concerning the effects of such sentences on those adult offenders who receive them. It does not address the effects of such sentences on wider public opinion, or on potential offenders, or on offenders who have not been convicted, nor does it consider the relative financial or other social costs of different kinds of custodial and non-custodial sentences.

  To understand whether and how different types of sentences may influence future offending, we first need to: (1) identify the major factors that are associated with the start of such anti-social behaviours (onset factors); (2) examine the reasons why some persist in their offending in spite of sanctions, often going on to commit more serious and harmful offences (persistence factors); and (3) explore the reasons why the vast majority of even the most persistent offenders eventually desist from offending (desistence factors). If we can build on a clear understanding of the key stages in the development of criminal careers, we are then more likely to be able to modify effectively the future criminal actions of persistent offenders.


  What is clear from a growing body of international research into criminal careers (Farrington 1993; Farrington and Tarling 1985; Feldman 1993; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Sampson and Laub 1994) is that onset, persistence and desistence factors are made up of a wide range of variables, largely related to offenders' social circumstances and close personal relationships, individual temperament and personality characteristics, their cognitive and reasoning skills, their mental health and degree of addictions, and their personal pre-dispositions and attitudes to offending and potential victims.

  Evidence is accumulating from North America (Gendreau 1995), the United Kingdom (Farrington 1993), Australasia (Trotter 1993) and Europe (L½sel 1995) of the factors that are indicative of onset, persistence and desistence, whether recorded by official processing or by self-reported behaviours. There are now reviews of such research which reveal close similarity between the findings of a large number of studies which have been conducted in different criminal justice systems, and in different social and cultural context. For example, Andrews and Bonta (1994) found the same factors were identified in a large sample of research into criminal careers carried out in the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia and New Zealand.

  Such "criminal career research" clearly indicates that while the problems related to anti-social behaviour are common in the offending population, especially amongst younger men, it is only a small minority of the population who persist in committing such acts over any period of time.

  Home Office cohort studies (Tarling 1993; Home Office 1995b) covering four decades, show that by age 40, 34 per cent of men and 8 per cent of women have been convicted of "standard list" offences (which exclude most road traffic offences and the majority of "summary only" offences). Of the men who have been convicted, 55 per cent had only the one conviction and court appearance, and 16 per cent had no more than two in total. However, 5 per cent had six or more convictions and accounted for 48 per cent of all the convictions of all the male offenders. This minority had criminal careers which, on average, lasted over 20 years and featured three or more custodial sentences by age 40.

  The picture of criminal careers for women, obtained from the same cohort studies, is similar but on a much reduced scale. Of the 8 per cent of women who had convictions an even higher proportion than amongst men had only one conviction (78 per cent) and 13 per cent had no more than two in total. However, 1 per cent of the women convicted had six or more convictions, had criminal careers of 20 years or more and had received at least two or more prior custodial sentences by age 40.

  These offenders also account, even more disproportionately, for the most serious and harmful offences that are dealt with by the courts. Of those who received, at some stage in their criminal careers, custodial sentences of four years or more, 92 per cent of the men and 91 per cent of the women had six or more previous convictions, and the vast majority had criminal careers of 20 years or more at the time of sentence.

  As one might reasonably expect, "self-report" studies show an even higher prevalence of criminal and anti-social behaviour, but, like reconviction studies, also show that a disproportionate number of self-reported criminal actions are committed by a minority who report frequent and persistent patterns of such behaviour. A recent Home Office self-report study of young people and crime (Graham and Bowling, 1995) shows that the involvement of 14-25 year olds in illegal drug use and other criminal offences is very wide-spread. Over 50 per cent of young men and 30 per cent of young women admitted to committing criminal offences and 45 per cent and 26 per cent admitted to using illegal drugs at some time in the previous five year period. One in four of the young men and one in eight of the young women admitted committing an offence in the previous 12 months and, of these, 25 per cent of men and 10 per cent of the women admitted committing more than five offences in the past year. There was a strong association between criminal offences and illegal drug usage, in that 90 per cent of the self-reported offenders also reported illegal drug usage. Most offending was relatively minor and infrequent, and the majority of drug users confined their occasional usage to cannabis. However, 4 per cent of the young men offenders and 1 per cent of the women offenders admitted committing more than 50 offences during the previous 12 months, which accounted for more than 40 per cent of all the self-reported offences, and an even greater proportion of the most serious and harmful actions. What the study also showed was the peak age for participation (self-reported) in offending and drug use was 20 to 21 years for males and 16 to 17 years for females, although different types of offending behaviour were associated with different peak ages.

  In both official conviction studies and self-report studies, evidence exists that the younger the offender is when they first come to the notice of the authority the more likely they are to persist in their offending and to have longer criminal careers. The Home Office cohort studies support previous evidence of an association between age at first conviction, the persistence of convictions and the length of criminal careers.

  This is particularly significant for young men whereas with women there is an association but it is less dramatic and significant.

  There is, however, a small but important group of adult persistent offenders who do not commence persistent offending until they are adults. These so called "late starters" are particularly important because they constitute a large proportion of petty persistent offenders; that is, offenders who do not usually commit serious offences, but who do commit large numbers of the more minor offences, such as petty theft, criminal damage, drunkenness, begging and vagrancy; minor violence and threatening behaviour, and public order offences. Studies in London and the north of England (Fairhead 1981; Corden 1983) have shown that many of these persistent petty offenders have indicative factors (symptoms) directly associated with life crisis and breakdowns; often a mixture of mental illness, marital and/or family break-up, alcohol abuse, redundancy, bereavement, and loss of accommodation. Whether individually or in interaction with each other, these critical life events and changes are causally related to persistent offending behaviour. Such offending is directly associated with: increased probabilities of social isolation and homelessness; chronic physical health problems and lack of access to primary health care; continuing alcohol and, occasionally, drug abuse; recurring mental health problems and failures to take medication; and no reliable legitimate income and reduced access to other financial supports.

  These persistent petty offenders pose major difficulties for all agencies. Police, Prisons, Probation, Health Services, Housing, and specialist voluntary agencies (eg night shelters) all struggle to find ways of dealing appropriately with such individuals in the context of multiple personal problems. In recent years efforts have been made to ensure that such offenders, whilst often troublesome to the public, are not imprisoned solely because of the nature and complexity of their lifestyle and social problems. Appropriate sentencing responses are difficult to achieve, especially in the light of growing concerns about offending in public places, plus reductions in the support which can be provided for such people by other agencies (eg Health and Social Services).

  It is undoubtedly the case that the vast majority of people who offend, and who are actually brought before the courts and convicted, respond positively to existing sanctions and controls, whether statutory or social or a combination of both. These offenders are not generally re-convicted of further offences and do not self-report continued offending behaviour (Mair 1997; Lloyd et al 1997). The apparent success of police cautioning and the sentencing practices of the courts with the vast majority of these offenders who are arrested, convicted and sentenced needs to be recognised. The majority of offenders with few previous convictions, and who are sentenced for the less serious offences, are dealt with by way of discharges, fines (and compensation orders), attendance centre orders, probation orders and community service orders. These disposals should therefore be viewed as largely successful, in that the majority of such non-persistent offenders complete these sentences successfully, complying with the conditions and avoiding re-offending.

  With the dramatic reduction in the use of fines as the principal sentence in the magistrates courts there is concern that more intrusive or costly penalties are being used as alternatives to monetary and other penalties (Taylor 1997). There is no evidence to suggest that the additional oversight, support and discipline of probation or community service orders is necessary to ensure that these do not re-offend. Probation Services are now struggling to find the resources necessary to administer supervision of offenders who are unlikely to re-appear before the courts. At the same time resources are increasingly required to supervise and manage far more persistent and potentially harmful offenders, some subject to sentences imposed by the court, but increasingly on licences following custodial sentences. It is the apparent "failure" of sentences applied to persistent offenders which may have been giving greatest concern, and may be one factor which has contributed to the increased use and length of custodial sentences imposed by the courts in England and Wales in the past decade (White & Woodbridge 1997).


  What then do we know about the characteristics of the majority of persistent offenders? Criminal career research has shown that factors explaining why some people become delinquent in their early years are not always precisely the same as factors underlying persistence, including in some cases the commission of increasingly serious and harmful offences. Nor are explanations of persistence the precise inverse of factors explaining why the majority of most persistent offenders desist from further or serious offending in later life. There are patterns of behaviour which are established in early life which, if not checked or modified, lead from early delinquency into adult criminality (Stewart & Stewart 1993). But those factors (often called "criminogenic"—Andrews & Bonta 1994, Hollin 1996, McGuire 1995) which are most strongly associated with persistence in criminal careers, and with desistence, are undoubtedly the most important to focus on in order to modify the future behaviour of such offenders (Shover 1996; Maruna 1997).

  These criminogenic factors are:

    (i)  Anti-social and pro-criminal attitudes, values and beliefs.

    (ii)  Poor self-control, self-management and problem solving skills; cognitive deficits.

    (iii)  Limited or indifferent awareness of victims, insensitivity to needs of other people; self-centredness.

    (iv)  Identification and associations with pro-criminal friends; pro-criminal life-style.

    (v)  Low levels of educational and vocational achievement; long-term unemployment.

    (vi)  Dependency on benefits; acute financial/debt problems; poor money management skills.

    (vii)  Breakdown of close personal relationships; weak or non-existent family support; social isolation.

    (viii)  Weak local community ties; insecure or unstable accommodation.

    (ix)  Persistent drug and/or alcohol abuse.

    (x)  High level of personal distress; mental health problems; self-abuse.

  It is important to identify the factors which can be changed or modified in the future ("dynamic" factors), and which are directly associated with persistence and the potential for desistence in offending (Burnett 1992; Ramsay 1996; Walters 1990). Reductions in the frequency and seriousness of offending behaviour require a focus on such "dynamic" factors, and the availability to the courts of disposals which can effectively address them (Andrews 1995; Hollin 1996). There is now a growing body of international research exploring the effectiveness of these "psychosocial interventions" which indicates that the largest and most consistent effect on re-offending could be achieved by addressing the dynamic variables associated with re-offending (Hood 1993).

  One additional and significant factor that also directly affects the likelihood of reduced re-offending is that of motivation (Andrews & Bonta 1994; Millar & Rollnick 1994). Unless persistent offenders have some desire to desist from future offending and wish actively to consider alternatives, then most well-designed "psychosocial interventions" are unlikely to have any impact. Other offenders may wish to change, but may have neither the personal ability to persevere nor the interpersonal support and encouragement to retain their commitment to desistence. Both these aspects of motivation need to be recognised and included in any intervention which aims to modify future offending behaviour. Additionally, it is necessary to include methods aimed at relapse prevention to ensure any positive changes are maintained over time (Wanigaratne et al. 1990).

  Given this increased knowledge of, on the one hand, factors which explain why some offenders are persistent and have long-term criminal careers and, on the other hand, factors linked to desistence, it is appropriate to ask how well existing disposals, both custodial and non-custodial, measure up in addressing these critical factors.



  The removal of offenders from the community and their resulting incapacitation clearly has some measurable benefits, both for the community and for the offenders themselves. Custody provides time for positive reflection on previous behaviour and its consequences, a period of protracted abstinence from addictive substances (Burnett 1992), separation from individuals and situations that had previously been linked with offending and, in some cases, protection from other offenders. Longer-term sentences may provide opportunities for vocational and educational training and, in the best resourced prisons, attendance at accredited programmes focused on aspects of their offending (Lo£sel 1995). The availability of these resources is, of course, reduced during periods of over-crowding (Woolf 1991). If most prisoners could be located in prisons close to their home area, then many more positive influences could be more consistently provided (Roberts 1994). Also, integrated sentence planning which assesses the relevant "criminogenic" and "desistence" needs of prisoners, as part of appropriate prison provision (including accredited programmes), release and resettlement planning, and complimentary post-release supervision by probation officers, could all have positive effects on re-offending.

  But there are numerous reasons why imprisonment does not address criminogenic factors and, in fact, increases the risk of future offending (Clarke 1995). The 1990 White Paper, "Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public" acknowledged that "nobody regards imprisonment as an effective means of reform .  .  . prison is a society which requires virtually no sense of personal responsibility from prisoners .  .  . the opportunity to learn about crime from other prisoners is pervasive .  .  . it can be an expensive way of making bad people worse .  .  . the prospects of reforming offenders are much better if they stay in the community". Not only does imprisonment increase the level and intensity of contamination between offenders, it can re-affirm pro-criminal values, beliefs and attitudes and negate commitment to desistence. It inevitably increases the range and predominance of pro-criminal associations and this, in effect, can promote more serious and harmful criminal intentions (Clear & Braga 1995; Roberts, C 1995). Imprisonment can seriously damage long-term partnerships and family relationships, with consequent loss of accommodation on release (Morris et al 1996). The constraints of institutional life increased dependency, deny independent decision-making and render offenders less able to help themselves. It serves, in many instances, to reduce motivation to make positive life changes on release. Rather than guaranteeing abstinence from drugs, some prisons can increase contact with illegal drugs and offenders can become dependent on drugs during prison sentences. For those offenders with mental health problems, imprisonment can mean less access to psychiatric treatment and appropriate medication (Hodgins 1993, Birmingham et al 1996).

Deferred Sentences

  Because the nature of this sentence is dependent on what happens in the interim period, deferred sentences have the potential to encourage or reinforce active steps to desistence and self-motivated change. Offenders are, on occasions, given explicit guidance by sentencers about what steps he or she might take, for example reduce a drug habit or hold down a job, in order to influence the final sentence which will be passed. There may be potential for increased use of deferred sentences, but no information is available on the potential beneficial effect of such explicit directions, nor on the longer-term outcomes of deferred sentences.

Discharges and Suspended Prison Sentences

  These essentially leave the offender to their own devices in determining how best to avoid future convictions. Those subject to conditional discharges, or suspended sentences, face the potential negative consequence of a more severe sentence if re-convicted, in addition to being re-sentenced for the original offence/s. Suspended sentences place no restrictions other than the obligation not to offend. With persistent offenders, suspended sentences have resulted in a high level of breach and thereby have actually increased the prison population (Bottoms 1981). There has also, since 1973, been provision for Suspended Sentence Supervision Orders (SSSOs), in which supervision is undertaken by Probation Officers. In practical terms, the supervision does not differ from that provided under Probation Orders, with the exception that no special requirements can be added to SSSOs.

Fines and Compensation Orders

  Financial penalties also leave the offender to determine how best to avoid future convictions and court appearances, although a Compensation Order may act as a direct reminder of the victim's losses. Compensation Orders (CO) can be made either in addition to or instead of a fine or other disposal, but if both a fine and a CO are imposed, the court must give preference to the CO if the offender's means are insufficient to pay both and may therefore impose a reduced fine. But major consequences of financial penalties for offenders still revolve around their ability to pay them on time. Some offenders are put at greater risk of imprisonment, due to their inability or unwillingness to pay, than they were for their original convictions. That is, an offender's shortage of money and the consequent reduction of legitimate disposable income in paying fines, can result in hardship which may in fact increase the probability of re-offending. The 1991 Criminal Justice Act introduced unit fines after a successful series of pilot studies in four magistrates courts; however, in the Act, the size of units was considerably increased, and after less than one year the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, rescinded the provisions for unit fines.

Senior Attendance Centres

  The provision of Senior Attendance Centres, for adult offenders up to the age of 21, is still very piecemeal, and they have never been available to all courts. The time penalty is considerably less than for the shortest Community Service Orders. The range of different activities offered—educational, vocational, physical and sporting—vary considerably from centre to centre. Very little evaluation has been done of the benefits of different curriculum on subsequent offender behaviour (Mair 1991). The potential exists for offenders to work on improving their attitudes and behaviour in a limited way during such short orders. The potential for contamination does exist for young adult offenders who are less persistent or knowledgeable about offending, but the very short nature of these orders probably minimises such negative consequences.

Community Service Orders

  Community Service (CS), first proposed in the Wootton Report in 1970, has been developed by Probation Services in England and Wales from 1973 onwards. Its primary purpose was to act as an alternative to custody (Pease 1977) but it was also promoted as a penalty which deprives offenders of personal time and which requires them to do work which would be of direct benefit to the wider community (May 1995). The reparative aspect is to the wider community rather than to the individual victims, but there is the added potential benefit of reinforcing to the offender the needs to "pay-back" for wrong doing. The range of work facilitated by CS has, from the start, been very varied (Roberts 1980), both between and within probation services. The potential for a contamination effect when putting together groups of offenders with varying prior criminal careers and knowledge of offending, poses a degree of risk. However, the potential gains of CS for individual offenders are considerable, and there is some evidence of their influence on re-offending (McIvor 1992). These include: getting into a regular pattern of working, if only for a few hours per week; learning some direct skills and competencies; seeing the benefits for recipients of the work undertaken; gaining satisfaction from helping others often less fortunate then themselves; and completing tasks as part of a team. It is clear that each of these can serve as positive forces to encourage change and desistence in offenders. Furthermore, by means of assessment of the work done on CS, some Probation Services are now making it possible for offenders to obtain credits towards qualifications (eg NVQs).

Probation Orders

  The Probation Order has been in existence since 1907 and its use and conditions have seen many changes over the past 90 years. It remains by far the most flexible community sentence, with the potential to be used in highly specific and individualised ways, whether by varying lengths (six months to three years) or by inclusion of one or more of a wide variety of conditions or requirements, including residential requirements and psychiatric or psychological treatment requirements. Because it can be tailored to fit the specific problems and characteristics of each offender, it has the potential to be directly linked to the very factors which most address persistence and encourage desistance (Harland 1996). It has the flexibility of being able to engage the offender in either one-to-one supervision and/or in groups, and to focus on motivation factors and relapse prevention. It also enables pro-social modelling (Trotter 1993) to be included as part of the supervision process: that is, staff demonstrate to offenders appropriate behaviour and responses in everyday situations, some of which may be potential "flash-points" for offenders.

  Probation Orders were traditionally focused on welfare needs and less directly on specific offending behaviour (Davies 1969; Morris and Tonry 1990). In the past 10 years, Probation Orders have included a more specific offending behaviour focus (McGuire 1995; Burnett 1996; Mair and May 1997). While much supervision continues to be on a one-to-one basis, with supervision plans drawn up by individual supervisors, the greatest growth has been in the development of offending-related group programmes, usually as a specific requirement of the Order (Mair 1994). The majority of these group programmes now employ cognitive-behavioural approaches. Some Probation Services run groups specifically for women, and for black offenders with the aim of maximising the learning which can be achieved. There is a growing body of international research evidence on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural programmes, which was recently reviewed by staff from the Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate (Vennard, Hedderman and Sugg, 1997). There is some evidence of the positive effects of such work in this country (Raynor and Vanstone 1997; Roberts, J 1995; Roberts, C 1989; 1995). There is considerable variation in the design, curriculum content, staffing and evaluations of such programmes. The effects of these variations are discussed in detail in a report commissioned by HM Probation Inspectorate (Underdown 1998).

  Further investigation is needed to assess the impact of other requirements that can be added to Probation Orders. The use of psychiatric conditions in Probation Orders has steadily declined overe the past 10 years (Sheriff 1997) in spite of evidence of the high prevalence of mental illness in persistent offenders (Birmingham et al 1996; Home Office 1995a). Drug and alcohol treatment conditions in Probation Orders, and conditions requiring psychological treatment, are relatively new provisions, and only limited evidence exists of their value and use (Sandham 1997; Sibbitt 1996).

  Conditions of residence in Probation Orders have a much longer history. Probation Hostels are used in a wide variety of ways (Davies 1996), and the criteria for acceptance varies by hostel. Traditionally, such hostels focused on younger offenders with family and accommodation problems (Andrews 1979; Sinclair 1971), but today hostles are less commonly used as a condition of residence and accommodate a wide age range and frequently supervise high-risk offenders. Again, little research has been done to examine their current use, and to explore their potential to be used in more specific and focused ways with residents who may require a more criminogenic focus in work done with them (Worrall 1997).

  A Probation Order is, arguably, the sentence with the greatest potential to focus on the criminogenic factors of relevance to an individual offender, and to deal directly with desistence, motivation and relapse prevention (Raynor 1994). Potential contamination effects clearly exist when offenders are brought together, particularly in intenseive group programmes and hostels. Some evidence exists which indicates that offenders at high risk of re-offending in fact do better than expected on such programmes (Andrews & Bonta 1994; Raynor & Vanstone 1997; Roberts, C 1995) but also that low risk offenders do worse than expected in terms of reconvictions, possibly as a consequence of contamination by higher risk offenders.

  However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that making intense surveillance the major objective of the Probation Order is unlikely to be effective. Research in the USA (Clear & Braga 1995; Harland 1996; Petersilia & Turner 1990) consistently shows only negative effects of such intensive probation programmes, which involve often daily and random visits to offenders. These intensive probation programmes have very high levels of breakdown and technical violations, across different US jurisdictions, without any measurable and positive effects on re-conviction rates. In fact, the high level of technical violations has had the effect of adding to increasing prison populations. In the USA, efficient surveillance is more successfully achieved by electronic monitoring than by the use of intensive probation programmes (Petersilia & Turner 1990)

Combination Orders

  The combination of a Probation Order (with or without requirements) and a Community Service Order was introduced by the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, and has become a widely used disposal by both Magistrates and Crown Courts (Sheriff 1997; Taylor 1997). As yet there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the potential of these Combination Orders, although research in Scotland (McIvor 1992) has demonstrated some beneficial effects for the completion of the community service element for offenders who are also on probation. To what extent the Combination Order can more effectively address and encourage offenders to desist from reoffending needs to be balanced against the potential negative effects of overloading offenders (McIvor 1992). Some might not have adequate personal skills and self-discipline to meet the considerable demands of weekly community service and probation conditions simultaneously. Statistics have revealed higher rates of breaches (Sheriff 1997) for Combination Orders than for Probation Orders (with or without requirements).

Electronic Monitoring and Home Curfew

  The newest addition to Community Sentences in this country has been the experimental use of electronic monitoring to ensure home curfews. The first experiment in England and Wales was largely unsuccessful (Mair & Nee 1990) due to considerable technical problems and the indiscriminate use of "tags" on offenders who were unlikely to comply with its restrictions. More recent trials have been more successful on both of these dimensions (Mortimer & Mair 1997). Recent reviews of the use of electronic monitoring (Whitfield 1997) document the wide range of ways in which electronic monitoring is now being used world-wide. It has been recognised that it is of only limited value when simply used to provide evidence of non-compliance with Court Orders for curfew (Mair & Nee 1990). However, there is some evidence, particularly in Sweden (Bishop 1996) of its potential to encourage desistence from offending, at least for a limited period of time. Some offenders find the "tag" helps them resist the temptation to spend time with people or visit places associated with their previous offending, although in Sweden the views of offenders' families were mixed, in that parents were most positive and partners were less so (Bishop 1996).

  Whether home confinement as a direct consequence of electronic monitoring puts some partners and children at more risk than they might otherwise be, has not yet been evaluated. Some of the direct short-term benefits of the use of electronic monitoring devices need to be examined further, together with its potential use alongside other disposals, particularly Probation and Combination Orders.


  The sentenced prison population dropped during 1992 but has risen remorselessly since early 1993 (White and Woodbridge 1997). There has been a rise in the average length of custodial sentences imposed by the Crown Court. There has also been a significant increase in the proportion of convicted offenders sentenced to immediate custody at the Crown Court and, to a lesser extent, in Magistrates' Courts. Much of the sentenced population is generated by Crown Court sentencing, so the changes in the average length and proportion given immediate custodial sentences at Crown Court are particularly significant.

  The increases in the sentenced prison population have been across the range of types of offenders, but there has been a gradual decline in the proportion of immediate custodial sentences where a pre-sentence report (prepared by probation officers) was requested, after a peak in late 1992 when the 1991 Criminal Justice Act was first implemented (Sheriff 1997).

  The number of offenders on Probation Orders with no previous convictions fell to a low point of 11 per cent of Probation Order commencements in 1991, but has since risen to 18 per cent for 1996. The proportion of Probation Orders imposed on offenders with at least one previous custodial sentence has risen slightly from 37 per cent in 1991 to 38 per cent in 1996. The proportion of Community Sentence Orders with no previous convictions has also risen from 14 per cent in 1991 to 32 per cent in 1996, but the proportion with at least one previous custodial sentence has fallen from 33 per cent in 1992 to 24 per cent in 1996. This may in part be a reflection of the fact that CS ceased to be "an alternative to custody" following the implementation of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act (Sheriff 1997).

  The Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate now have available reconviction rates on offenders who, between 1987 and 1993, were released from prison sentences or were commencing community sentences for standard list offences. They are able to compare "raw" reconviction rates with adjusted reconviction rates. The adjustments take account of "pseudo-reconvictions" (convictions, after release from prison or after commencing a community sentence, that relate to offences committed prior to release or prior to the commencement of the community sentence—Lloyd et al 1994), and also key differences in the characteristics of the offenders (including differences in their predicted or expected reconviction rate over a two-year period—Copas et al 1996; Kershaw 1997).

  An analysis of the figures for the 1993 study of reconviction rates showed that, after making adjustments for "psuedo-reconvictions" and "predicted reconviction rates", the difference between the overall two-year reconviction rates for immediate custodial sentences and community sentences (CS, Probation Orders with or without requirements and Combination Orders) was one percentage point. This suggests that, at a national level, there are no significant differences between reconviction rates for immediate custodial and community sentences, although differences have been found in some localised studies of comparative reconviction rates (Roshier 1995; Oldfield 1996). However, an analysis of the types of disposal that offenders received on reconviction reveals important differences between the apparent effects of custodial sentences and community sentences on the probability of subsequent custodial sentences. Of those offenders released from custodial sentences in 1993, 29 per cent of male offenders and 18 per cent of female offenders were imprisoned again on their first reconviction within two years of release. Whereas, of those offenders who had been sentenced to Probation Orders (with or without requirements), only 23 per cent of male offenders and 10 per cent of female offenders had been imprisoned on their first reconviction. Amongst those who had been sentenced to Community Service only 19 per cent of the male offenders and 11 per cent of the female offenders had been imprisoned on their first reconviction. The differences for Probation Orders are more significant because the offenders on these orders had been rated, by the Home Office "predictor", as having far greater chances of being reconvicted within two years than those who received custodial sentences (Copas et el 1996; Kershaw 1997). The differences for CS Orders are also important in that these offenders had been rated as having the same chances of reconviction within two years as those who received custodial sentences.


  This section will concentrate on Community Sentences and not on all non-custodial penalties currently available to the courts. Given current sentencing practice, the focus falls largely on the work of Probation Services. There is considerable potential for more of the work, which is currently done solely by some Probation Services, to be done in the future in conjunction with other agencies and organisations, via partnerships and joint statutory responsibilities.

A Case Management Approach

  Probation Services have made major strides in re—focusing their attention in Probation Orders onto offending and associated behaviours (eg drug abuse—Sibbitt 1996; Sandham 1997). In relation to sex offending (Proctor & Flaxington 1996; STEP Report 1995), a high proportion of all services now have carefully designed and targeted group programmes together with procedures for assessing and managing risk (Home Office/ACOP 1997). But there is still a wide variation in provision of other types of programmes (Underdown 1997), and in some large services these variations exist within the same service. There is a need for consistently higher quality supervision which is focused on criminogenic factors, the promotion of motivation and relapse prevention, and which is delivered in a variety of contexts: one-to-one supervision, group programmes, hostels, inter-professional work (eg psychiatrists and psychologists) and via partnerships with other organisations (statutory, voluntary and commercial). Some services (both large and small) are able to deliver well planned and co-ordinated approaches. Many of these have been re-organised to provide case management approaches, which thereby improve the management of practice and the control of quality. In some services there is scope for further development of practice and resources to bring their delivery of community sentences into line with best practice elsewhere (Burnett 1996).

Assessment and Risk Management

  More structured and rigorous assessments, at the stage when pre-sentence reports are prepared and when supervision plans are first formulated, would help to identify relevant criminogenic factors (Aubrey & Hough 1997; Roberts et al. 1996). These would assist in the better matching of appropriate interventions to offenders, and would begin to break down the culture of personalised practice which is still prevalent in Probation Services (Hedderman & Gelsthorpe 1997). Such rigorous assessment procedures would also be a great aid in monitoring assessments of risk and in the production of appropriate risk management plans. Furthermore, such procedures would be particularly appropriate for the management of those offenders who have the potential to do serious harm to other people (Monahan & Steadman 1994). Some well-designed assessment "tools" already exist (Sutton & Davis 1997; Roberts & Robinson 1997; Home Office/ACOP 1997), and are being piloted in a number of services.

Integrated Supervision Plans

  A more specific focus in supervision plans has been shown to be related to positive change in offenders (Roberts et al. 1996). More attention and quality control should be given to the curriculum of programmes and to identifying which types of offenders are most likely to benefit. Case management, rather than "case-work" approaches, are more likely to deliver the right fit between one-to-one supervision and group programmes; and on—going relapse prevention (Raynor 1994). Further, there is scope for the more focused use of residential hostels as part of an overall plan for appropriate offenders. This would require further integration of hostel work with other types of supervision in the community.

Improved Use of Partnerships and Inter-Professional Links

  All Probation Services have formed some partnerships with other voluntary and private agencies to deliver services. However, some appear to be irrelevant to the needs of most offenders; and many are significantly under-used, largely because report writers and supervisors do not refer offenders to them (Roberts et al. 1996). A better fit between assessments and supervision plans is needed so that the optimum benefit of such partnership projects is gained. For example, a significant number of offenders have mental health problems that require co-ordinated work with other agencies. Another example is that of domestic violence where, again, a multi-agency approach is more likely to be effective (Hague & Malos 1997).

Evaluation and Monitoring of Interventions

  There is a need to build evaluation and monitoring systems into assessment and service delivery. Evaluation should be integrated into day-to-day decisions and practices and should not be seen as an activity to be undertaken occasionally. If properly done this will not only provide high-quality data and evidence of the effectiveness or otherwise of different practices with different offenders, but will also assist in future planning and targeting of resources. Positive outcomes revealed by evaluations can then be fed back to those who use community sentences; in particular, sentencers and the wider public. In addition to routine evaluation there is also a need for research of a longitudinal nature to obtain detailed information about criminal careers and longer-term desistence (Mair 1997; Raynor 1996; Tarling 1993).

Improvement of existing provisions and willingness to explore new practices

  Evidence outlined in previous sections in this paper shows that many Probation Services have taken steps to raise the quality of the existing disposals for which they have responsibility. The improvement of existing practices would probably achieve the most dramatic results in efforts to reduce re-offending.

  Probation Services have historically shown great adaptability (eg the introduction of Community Service in 1972) and should continue to embrace new developments. Electronic monitoring is a development that requires co-operation so that the benefits of any curfews can be enhanced by additional supervision measures (Whitfield 1997). Indeed, electronic monitoring could provide a new positive dimension to Probation or Combination Orders, if used selectively following careful assessments. The expertise that probation services have developed in community service and in delivering group based activities could be used to modify and improve the use of Senior Attendance Centres and make them nationally available to a wider range of offenders and more appropriate to those who would be required to attend them. Improved and comprehensive provision of such centres would provide a far better penalty for non-payment of financial penalties than using community service orders or imprisonment (West 1978). Other collaborative developments may well also be appropriately integrated into existing community sentences. The Car Crime Programme run by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland is an example of such collaborative projects.


  As well as the provision of non-custodial community sentences there are other aspects of the criminal justice system which clearly affect the size of the prison population. Reductions in the length of prison sentences themselves, and the availability of provisions for temporary release and early release, offer opportunities to reduce the real length of custodial sentences without exposing the public to greater risk. Pre-trial decisions about bail and remands also significantly influence the size of the daily prison population; it is timely to address these factors alongside the use of non-custodial and community sentences. Again, Probation Services occupy positions of influence in these respects through their work within prisons, their responsibilities for throughcare and licence supervision, and their role in providing bail information and bail hostel beds (Hardy 1997). These aspects of their work need to be further developed alongside their more familiar roles of writing court reports and supervising offenders who are serving community sentences.

  Evidence of the characteristics of persistent offenders demonstrates the need to be able directly to address those factors that encourage continuation of offending and, conversely, those that enable desistence from re-offending. Only if these factors are accurately identified and appropriately tackled can there be any real chance of reducing the amount and the seriousness of the offending these individuals commit. Whilst custodial sentences provide limited public protection by incapacitation, on the whole they do little to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. However, community sentences are often perceived as a "let-off" or "being soft on offenders". Undoubtedly, community sentences with the right ingredients, properly targeted and rigorously used, can be the means to reduce the probability of re-offending in those who have the greatest likelihood of persisting.

  Clearly, the public and sentencers need to have confidence in community sentences, and thereby particularly in the work of probation services and partnership agencies, if community sentences are to be used more widely for persistent offenders. We have evidence that, with accurate assessment and rigorous delivery of mixtures of one-to-one supervision, group programmes, residence in hostels, and referral to appropriate partnership provision, and the appropriate use of the electronic "tag", community sentences can have measurably beneficial effects influencing desistence from further offending and reducing the number of relapses. But, to achieve such results more reliabily, probation services and partnership organisations need to do more to improve the consistency and quality of community sentences and to integrate the evidence of "what works" into all aspects of service delivery. Regardless of such improvements, however, probation services also need more commitment and public support from politicians, civil servants, the media and sentencers for the difficult and demanding job of rigorously supervising persistent and sometimes dangerous offenders in the community. They need to feel confident that their efforts will be "backed" so long as they deliver the appropriate types of supervision in consistent and effective ways. They also need to be able to draw on more extensive research into the effectiveness of community sentences, and better in-house evaluation procedures, in order to improve their "targeting" and the content and delivery of supervision. High quality interventions with persistent offenders need to be adequately resourced to ensure effective outcomes and there needs to be the right mix of skills and trained staff available to implement them consistently.

Colin H Roberts

Senior Research Fellow, Probation Studies Unit, Fellow of Green College and University Lecturer in Applied Social Studies, University of Oxford

November 1997


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