Community sentencing to reduce prison overcrowding

Community punishment can be more effective than short prison sentences, a Ministry of Justice document will argue today.

The report, ‘Community Sentencing – Reducing Re-offending, Changing Lives’, could be the first step towards an overhaul of the government’s sentencing policy.

The renewed vigour with which the government is approaching the subject will be interpreted as a mark of how severe the overcrowding in Britain’s prisons has become.

The news is sure to get a warm response from penal reform charities, who have long argued against what they interpret as a heavy-handed and populist response to minor crimes.

Labour MP David Hanson assured the public community sentences would not apply to sexual or violent offenders.

“Prison is necessary to punish offenders and protect the public from serious sexual and violent offenders,” he said.

“The government will always ensure there are places available for those offenders.

“But it is not necessarily the best route for less serious offenders who may lose their job, their accommodation and their family ties after a short period of imprisonment,” he continued.

“Avoiding these issues cuts the likelihood of re-offending on release, and in doing so cuts crime.”

Mr Hanson will now tour local communities trying to ensure any new focus on community sentences does not lead to suspicions the government is going soft on crime.

“A three-year community order with supervision and 100 hours of unpaid work is a tough sentence which places heavy demands on the offender,” he said.

“Recent statistics show that the frequency of re-offending for those sentenced to community orders has fallen sharply by 13 per cent. I’m determined to widen this debate over the next six months and will be taking the discussion out to local communities.”

The government committed £40 million in March to ensure magistrates have tough community sentences at their disposal.

Six new pilot community sentencing projects are being given £13.9 million in funding.

Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: “We welcome the publication of this report and hope this signals a robust line from the government that we cannot continue simply cramming more and more people into our overcrowded prisons.

“In particular, short prison sentences that do nothing to tackle the underlying causes of crime are particularly ineffective at reducing re-offending.

“We would like the government to now look at more ways in which communities themselves can get involved in community sentencing, for example in helping to identify what kind of unpaid work particular areas require,” she added.

“This is vital to increase public confidence in the effectiveness of justice in the community.”