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Jonny Hyman Criminology, Sentencing and the Penal System

Ifcommunitypenaltiesreallyworked,thenthegovernmentwouldsurelyhaveno
hesitationinpromotinggreateruseoftheminsentencing.Discuss.(Tripos,2013)
As demand for prison space exceeds supply, and the cost implications of sending
offenders into custody are more closely scrutinised, there has arisen a need to assess
alternatives to incarceration, especially to short term prison terms. One of these
alternatives is the provision for community penalties, which is being explored with
much seriousness by recent governments. Community sentences allow offenders to
undertake rehabilitative programs and work in the community whilst under the
supervision of the Probation Service. Former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke advocated
community sentences as an attractive alternative to short-term custody, stating that it
is virtually impossible to do anything productive with offenders on short prison
sentences. This is in direct opposition to Michael Howards 1993 declaration that
prison works. In this essay I will argue that, broadly speaking, in the search for what
works, community penalties can serve as an effective sentencing option, but this is
not to say that the government will have no hesitation in promoting greater use of
them in sentences. A sceptical, but arguably correct, view of how government
functions centres on desire to achieve re-election above a serious attempt to improve
all aspects of society. If this means eschewing promotion of community penalties in
order to appear tough on crime and appease the voting population, then we may
have to wait for community penalties to take their effect in the community itself,
shaping public perceptions for the positive before they are no longer seen as a soft,
or easy alternative to custody, and they are finally promoted and implemented
properly by the government.
To assess whether community penalties work, we must establish their aims in order to
analyse whether these can be fulfilled. As regards treatment of the offenders
themselves, there is clearly a punitive element to them, restricting the offenders
liberty through a number of requirements, such as unpaid work, participation in
specified activities, prohibition from certain activities, curfews, residence requirement,
and supervision. Another key principle and aim of community sentences is to reduce
reoffending and rehabilitate the offender. There are programmes which aim to change
offending behaviour treat mental health, drug, and alcohol problems. These
programmes address the causes of crime and show victims that offenders are
encouraged and supported to manage their own problems. However, community
penalties have come under some criticism from those who argue that it is difficult to
find a balance between onerous conditions and avoidance of breaches, to the extent
that it is unclear what the true aim of these penalties is. Despite this criticism, I think
we can say that on an offender level, community sentences are designed both to
punish and rehabilitate, with the ultimate target of reducing reoffending. On a national
policy level, the aims of community penalties are three-fold: preventing further crime,
which I have already touched upon when considering the aim to reduce reoffending;
providing an effective alternative to the economic and spatial problems with short
term custody for minor offenders; and establishing a link between the community and
the offender to change the social viewpoint towards offenders.
All of these aims are admirable and would no doubt benefit society as a whole, so I
move on now to an assessment of how successful community penalties are in
achieving these goals: simply, do they work? Beginning with the effects on the

Jonny Hyman Criminology, Sentencing and the Penal System


offenders themselves, we can see that community penalties can serve as an effective
punitive measure. For many offenders, prison is not a scary prospect, but a way of life.
The revolving-door of prison means that offenders often have good friends inside
jail, very good relationships with staff, and find life in prison very comfortable
compared to the fragile nature of life in society. Community sentences are punitive in
that they restrict liberty and plunge the offender into a different situation of being
supervised while carrying out what may be their first experience of proper work.
Therefore for many offenders, the punitive element of community service has more of
an effect than a short prison term. Moving onto rehabilitation and reducing
reoffending, statistics support community penalties in this area. Where prison
punishes, it also removes offenders from society and takes away responsibility from
the offender. Community sentences allow offenders to maintain essential links that
prevent reoffending, such as links with family, a house or a job, the continuity of which
is threatened by a prison sentence. Links with community ensure that the offender is
more likely to understand the effects of the crime, and the importance of law abidance
in the community. The success of this is reflected by the Ministry of Justice
2011Compendium of Re-offending Statistics and Analysis which have demonstrated
that community orders are more effective than short prison sentences at reducing
reoffending by approximately eight percent. Furthermore, a drug treatment
requirement can reduce volume offending by a particular offender by 70% for every
week the offender remains compliant with the order. This sentence targets the most
difficult group of chronically addicted offenders, and for offenders who completed their
orders, there was a reconviction rate of 53% compared to 91% for those whose orders
were revoked, according to a Home Office study. On an offender-level, community
penalties seem to satisfy their two aims.
As regards wider social policy, the aim of preventing further crime has already been
tackled above, so a brief analysis of the economic benefits of community penalties is
required, and once again the statistics are in the favour of community penalties. The
cost of sending someone to prison is on average twelve times higher than a Probation
or Community Service Order, which costs about 6 per offender per day. Community
sentences deal with approximately four times as many people as prisons, for only forty
percent of the cost. Replacing 20,000 prison places with alternative sentences would
save the taxpayer 690 million, while a reduction in the prison population of 5%
(3,500) would save 120 million. With regard to the third aim of better understanding
of offenders by the general public, community penalties, by keeping the offender
involved in the community, allow the public to see offenders as human beings who are
often vulnerable, rather than a set of animals who are so often removed from society
when they are in prison, further widening the gap between the group of offenders and
society as a whole. Given the constantly falling budget of the Ministry of Justice, the
combination of a cost-effective method which reduces re-offending, whilst punishing
and rehabilitating the offenders should be widely embraced.
Recent governments do appear to have been taking the idea of community penalties
more seriously, with the establishment of the National Offender Management Service
to provide a seamless approach to working with those in custody, with probation staff
in the community liaising with their prison colleagues to identify and challenge
maladaptive behaviour. Furthermore, Transforming Rehabilitation, a government
report in 2013 has seen the commencement of the process of privatisation of

Jonny Hyman Criminology, Sentencing and the Penal System


probation services, competition for which will induce more effective dealing with lowlevel offenders based on payment for results. However, the one major reason which is
stopping the government from sufficiently promoting this attractive alternative to
short-term custody is public perception of community penalties. For too many sections
of the public, locking up offenders is a tangible method of disposing of the offence and
offender, and community penalties are a soft option. A recent Policy Exchange report
reveals a YouGov poll showing that 60 per cent of people regard community sentences
as soft or weak and undemanding. Some 49 per cent said they oppose plans to
impose fewer short-term sentences and more community penalties. Custody is much
easier to comprehend than the ethereal notion of the community sentence. Ordinary
people simply do not know what community sentences are, nor what they do.
Community sentences are rarely featured in the media in comparison to the police,
prisons and the courts. Only 7% of the general
public claim to know a lot about what the probation service does and this presents
significant difficulties when trying to build public confidence in community sentences.
These statistics provide a predicament for the government, who clearly recognize that
community penalties work, but are so influenced by the media and ill-informed public
opinion because of their wish to be re-elected. Before we see a welcome rise in the
use of community penalties, there will need to be a significant increase in public
confidence. This can be achieved in a number of ways. More education for the public
as to the benefits of community sentences is obvious, and these sentences must try to
engage the community more in their delivery; this would increase public
understanding if the sentences are clearly visible to ordinary people. It would be even
more effective if the sentences mobilise the community around the offender, which
would not only benefit the offender, but also the community and their perceptions of
these types of penalties.
The government should be doing far more to promote community penalties given the
evidence supporting the notion that they work. Eventually, the advantages of these
penalties to the community will become clear to the public, leading to a change in
perception, and the government finally becoming willing to throw its entire weight
behind the enterprise. However, better education to the public regarding community
penalties, and more focus on the community aspect of them would quicken this
process, leading to a better result for offenders and society as a whole.