Community Orders: A Sensible Move Towards Reducing Reoffending Rates And Avoiding Trauma

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Last month, Justice Secretary David Gauke outlined his vision for a “smart” justice system to reduce reoffending rates. Gauke hopes to follow Scotland’s lead in abolishing custodial sentences of less than six months in favour of “robust” community orders with a more rehabilitative focus. Prison reform has been on the agenda since 2016, when David Cameron highlighted the ineffectiveness of short sentences. A 2015 government study found that within a year of release sixty per cent go on to reoffend, with one more re-offence per person on average than community orders.

Penal reform campaigners have praised Gauke’s departure from traditional Conservative policy of “hard” justice in favour of balanced, evidence-based policy. He has support from Prisons Minister Rory Stewart who claimed that short sentences are “long enough to damage you and not long enough to heal you”. Stewart has promised to resign if he fails to reduce violence in prisons; last year there were 50,000 incidents of self-harm among the 82,500 prisoners in England and Wales, and 32,500 drug-fuelled assaults.

Britain has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe: this figure has doubled since the 1990s. Given the toxic state of prisons which pushes petty criminals into drugs and violence, alongside the immense cost for the government of £35,000 per prisoner, Gauke’s move towards community payback seems not only sensible but inevitable.

At £4000, the cost of a community order is only a fraction of a short sentence and allows time for behavioural intervention. The Howard League for Penal Reform argues that issues of homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse and mental illness can be better addressed by community service which combines the structure of unpaid work with drug and alcohol addiction treatment, mental health support, and regular supervision.

Gauke is piloting a new scheme in five areas of the UK in which petty criminals suffering from mental illness or substance abuse will undergo compulsory treatment rather than a custodial sentence. Psychologists and health officials will liaise with judges in court to identity those who qualify for the scheme. The aim is to address factors which influence crime before they escalate and lead to reoffending, thus saving time and money.

This move towards rehabilitative justice seems promising. However, there are underlying issues which will likely undermine Gauke’s vision. Under austerity, budget cuts scaled back magistrate training on sentencing and community orders. According to a study carried out by criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory, most judges have a concrete idea of what prison entails, while only thirty-seven per cent have confidence in giving out community orders. Thus, they are more likely to favour the former.

To make matters worse, the Chief Inspector of Probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, found that David Cameron’s part privatisation of the probation service in 2015 created a “two-tier” system as crucial services were outsourced to unreliable contractors. The Transforming Rehabilitation scheme split the National Offender Management Service into the public National Probation Service and private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).

An inquiry by the Justice Committee found that some CRCs are so stretched that staff have to monitor offenders over the telephone whilst being expected to “manage cases involving domestic violence and abuse after receiving only a single day of training”. In particular cases, CRCs have left offenders homeless and with a serious shortfall in funds required to live. Furthermore, the government has had to bail out underperforming CRCs with an extra £342m to avoid risking a Carillion-style disaster. Gauke’s incentive towards replacing prison sentences with community orders could actually result in increased re-offending rates if these catastrophic failings in the probation service are not addressed.

Another factor influencing the success of Gauke’s project is the policing of crime. Minister for Policing, Nick Hurd, recently announced plans for the largest funding increase for police services since austerity began in order to recruit more officers and invest in new technologies and resources. However, more than half of the pledged £970m will be sourced from increases in council tax rather than from the Treasury. The Chair of the Police Federation, John Apter, accused the government of “passing the buck…to the public” when “it was the government’s austerity policies which have seen police budgets slashed by nineteen per cent” since 2010. A leaked Home Office document revealed that police cuts “likely contributed” to a rise in violent crime. The recent change in policy is no doubt an attempt to clean up the mess brought about by austerity.

David Gauke’s plan to replace short sentences with community orders demonstrates the MP’s commitment to both humane and cost-effective change to the judicial system. Sadly, the government’s failure to address the root causes of and inadequate responses to crime look set to thwart the success of the project.