A report published earlier this year said community punishments failed to stop reoffending. But is sending criminals to prison a more effective way to get them to change? Sam Casey reports.
In February a man walked out of court in Leeds having admitted drink driving. He had been given a community order, 140 hours’ unpaid work and £150 in fines and costs.
Although he was twice the legal alcohol limit it was not an unusual punishment for what, on the spectrum of offending, is a relatively minor crime.
Except that, in this case, it was the 46-year-old man’s seventh conviction for the same offence.
Passing sentence, magistrates said their hands were tied by comments made by a crown court judge at a previous hearing. He had said that the maximum sentence for drink driving – six months in prison – would not be an effective way of getting the man to change.
In the same month the Centre for Crime Prevention published a report suggesting community sentences failed to stop reoffending. Figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice showed that more than three quarters of prisoners in England and Wales last year had at least one previous community sentence to their name.
However, figures given to the Yorkshire Evening Post by West Yorkshire Probation Service suggest that those who are sent to prison are marginally more likely to err again after their release than those who are not locked up in the first place.
Between October 2010 and September 2011 – the latest period for which data has been collated – 35.2 per cent of all criminals in West Yorkshire reoffended, compared with 35.4 per cent of those who had been released from prison.
Clare Maguire, team manager for the probation service’s Wakefield Court Team, said prison sentences were useful in keeping the public safe – but often failed to reform criminals whose offending was driven by problems like alcoholism or drug addiction.
“Prison doesn’t address the root cause of the problem,” she said.
“Take a woman who has a child and a council house and is a prolific shoplifter. She might get a sentence of 12 months, which keeps her out of trouble for that time, but when she comes out she might have lost ties with her children and family, lost her accommodation.
“It would be more cost effective and is likely to be better for everyone in the long term if she was kept in the community and given the support and tools to change her life, ”
She said the assertion that community sentences were a “soft option” were misguided.
“A lot of people who have been through the system before would much rather go to prison,” she said.
“In the community they have to attend appointments, engage with officers, undertake unpaid work. It’s more of a burden and it lasts far longer, but also out of that there can be positive things – they can be provided with the tools to make changes.”
Those with the job of passing sentence are often caught on the horns of a dilemma.
Peter Chapman, chairman of the Magistrates Association sentencing committee and a magistrate for more than a decade, said JPs had to balance the need to punish an offender with the desire to rehabilitate them.
He said: “We look at somebody’s previous offending history and how they have complied with orders in the past as well as looking at the risk they would pose to other people. But someone can’t be given a long sentence if they are committing low-level offences.
“There’s no silver bullet that anyone can fire at crime but I think community sentences are very useful. They allow individuals to make changes with support and give people the ability to make those changes if they are willing.”
Others disagree. Peter Cuthbertson, director for the Centre for Crime Prevention which published February’s report, branded community sentences “a major threat to public safety”.
“The vast majority of prisoners had previously been given at least two community sentences and then gone on to reoffend,” he said.
“So we know they are failing in tens of thousands of cases. Community sentences fail to protect the public for their duration - unlike prison - and they have a higher reoffending rate than either medium or long prison sentences.”
As for the victims, Lesley McLean, divisional manager for West Yorkshire Victim Support, said not all wanted to see criminals locked up.
She said: “Community sentences can work for victims as well as offenders, but in order for that to happen, victims needs must be carefully considered when the decision is made to give this kind of sentence.
“It is vital that any approach to sentencing is explained properly to victims as too many are left confused by the sentencing process. Victims deserve to know what is being done to punish the person who committed a crime against them, and why. This is also important to ensure that victims and the wider public have confidence that the sentences being given are effective.”