Memorandum by the Police Superintendents'
Association of England and Wales
The Police Superintendents' Association of England
and Wales supports the principle that there should be diversity
in the sentencing options available to the judiciary. This allows
all the factors in a case to be considered when determining the
sentence. Nonetheless we have serious concerns about the apparent
direction of this inquiry given that its terms of reference identifies
one of the background objectives to be "to reduce the
It is our submission that for the vast majority
of convicted criminals serving prision sentences there is no effective
alternative to imprisonment. Indeed, we feel that there are many
serving non-custodial sentences who should be in prison. This
is especially so with regard to persistent offenders. To reduce
the prision population by the imposition of other sentences on
such people would increase the number of criminals at liberty
to continue their criminal activity.
In our opinion, prison works. It is effective
in addressing the primary objectives of sentencing policy. No
other form of sentence does this as well in comparison. We would
encourage the greater use of imprisonment rather than reducing
The primary objectives of sentencing policy
by the criminal, in both the short term and the long term;
punish or penalise
act as a deterrent
to others; and
public and thus instil confidence in the criminal justice system.
The overall aim is to reduce crime.
Let us examine each of these objectives in turn
and consider each in relation to how it is served by the use of
custodial and non-custodial sentences.
Whenever a debate on sentencing takes place
the measure of the effectiveness of any particular sentence almost
always seems to be the re-offending rate associated with it. The
other objectives, particularly that of punishing the criminal,
are rarely discussed. As a consequence important considerations
in determining what sentences should be available are sidelined
or deliberately evaded.
We accept that it is easier to measure whether
a person re-offends following a sentence than to obtain a quantitative
assessment of the impact of the sentence on the other objectives,
but that should not reduce their importance in the debate.
The fact that this happens is also surprising
because research has shown, time and again, that there is no significant
difference between long term (usually two years and more) re-offending
rates associated with custodial and non-custodial sentences.
Even if there was a difference, assertions that
non-custodial sentences are more effective by virtue of lower
re-offending rates than custodial sentences are wholly fallacious.
The point is that in comparing the two, some social scientists
are trying to compare two entirely different populations. The
vast majority of those in prison are there because they are persistent
offenders who have served the gamut of non-custodial sentences
and have not reformed, going on to commit further crimes. They
have already shown themselves to be unreceptive to the various
non-custody based programmes intended to help them stop re-offending.
How, then, can it be claimed that they form a comparator group
for those who have shown themselves to be willing to change their
lifestyle before they are imprisoned?
There is a great deal said about re-offending
rates but we believe that the above clearly shows that more weight
is given them than they deserve when endeavouring to assess the
effectiveness of various sentences.
Having said that, there is a valid comparison
between the two individual groups worthy of comment. That is that
in the short term we can guarantee the absence of re-offending
against the public by those in prisonwhilst they are in
prison (accepting that a few crimes are committed against inmates
and prison staff in prisons). In other words they are incapacitated
from committing additional crimes. Furthermore the removal of
one member of a criminal network has a disruptive effect on the
activities of other members, even if only temporarily, and so
crime is reduced even more.
Conversely, we cannot be so assured that those
serving non-custodial sentences are not re-offending whilst still
serving that type of sentence. Indeed, many of those who re-offend
do so whilst in the process of serving their non-custodial sentence,
although that may not come to light until some time afterwards.
There are striking similarities here with re-offending whilst
on bail, which serves to indicate the propensity of such criminals
to carry on offending.
Lastly on this matter, recent research has shown
that for those who have been sentenced to imprisonment, the prospect
of receiving a second term has been very influential in formulating
their intention not to re-offend.
Punishment is an important issue because it
can affect the other objectives. If criminals are seen or perceived
to have escaped justice through not being punished severely enough,
the deterrent effect is diminished and offenders commit more crimes.
Ultimately crime increases.
Non-custodial sentences, some more than others,
are regarded by many to be "soft options" and not a
punishment at all. This may be totally erroneous but the perception
remains and is reinforced by the way such sentences are portrayed
in the media. Repeatedly, formal cautions (renamed "final
warnings" in the Crime and Disorder Bill) administered to
first time offenders are reported with the words, ". . .
let off with a caution . . ."
Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence which
shows that criminals, themselves, do not regard some non-custodial
sentences as punishment. So they continue to commit crimes until
eventually they find themselves in custody, either on remand or
having been sentenced. Few regard imprisonment in any way other
than as a punishment.
It follows that if sentences are seen, or considered
widely, to be too lenient then they are unlikely to act as a deterrent
to would-be criminals. The reason most people do not commit offences
has little to do with sentencing but is a reflection of their
own personal values. However, for those who might be tempted into
crime, the more punitive the likely penalty the more effective
The 14th British Social Attitute Report, published
in November 1997, revealed that the public expects the government
to continue to be tough on crime and that there is growing support
for stiffer sentences, meaning greater use of imprisonment.
The message is clear. There is little public
acceptance of non-custodial sentences as a means of dealing with
criminals, particularly the persistent offenders. People expect
to feel safe from crime and see imprisonment as the most effective
way of securing this. Thus any reduction in the use of prison
sentences will lead to a loss of confidence in the government
and the criminal justice system, which includes the police service.
Along with this will come an increase in the fear of crime and
a lowering of the quality of life for many people. The incidence
of vigilante action could also increase.
Some commentators argue that it is wrong to
listen to populist notions on sentencing but we contend that without
public confidence in the whole system people will not support
it and will not contribute in the fight against crime. Without
that support and contribution the authorities will make little
impact on the level of crime.
Non-custodial sentences are not publicly accepted
as a means of punishment, they do not appear to have a significant
deterrent effect, they cannot incapacitate criminals in the short
term nor are they more effective in preventing long term re-offending,
and they do not seem to reassure the public. On the other hand
imprisonment is regarded as a punishment, it has a deterrent value,
it does incapacitate criminals whilst they are in prison, it is
a factor in determining long term re-offending, and it does serve
to reassure the public that the system is protecting them.
Analysis of the prison population and of the
crime figures over the last 40 or so years reveals some interesting
Firstly, as the relative prison population has
declined so the level of crime has risen. During the period 1950
to 1993 the number of prisoners per 1,000 crimes fell from about
40 to 10. Simultaneously, the number of crimes per 100,000 of
population rose from below 2,000 to over 10,000.
We acknowledge that many factors may contribute
to increases in crime and some criminologists attribute the changes
to social factors. However, it seems significant to us that since
1993 the level of crime has been falling at the same time that
there has been tougher sentencing by the courts and the prison
population has been increasing. It is difficult to identify a
substantial change in social factors during that short time which
would explain the situation.
Clearly the police have been more effective
in targeting criminals and crime prevention measures have had
a limited impact, but these are insufficient alone to explain
the dramatic changes. It is our conclusion that the severity of
sentencing does have a direct bearing on the level of crime. This
is endorsed by recent studies in America.
Secondly, the recent rise in prison population
mainly relates to a few specific categories of criminal, namely
those who have committed the most serious of offences. Between
1986 and 1997 there have been substantial rises in the number
of sentenced prisoners for these offences:
|Violence||6,600 to 10,800
|Sexual||1,900 to 4,200
|Robbery||3,400 to 8,300
|Drugs||2,800 to 7,400
For the same period there have been decreases
in relation to the following:
|Burglary||8,800 to 6,600
|Theft||7,400 to 5,900
Thus there has been a total increase of sentenced
prisoners from 36,400 to 48,800 in the last 11 years. However
the real upsurge did not actually begin until 1994. Interestingly,
the number on remand has not increased to such a large extent
relatively (10,100 to about 11,600).
The figures show that the growing number of
offenders imprisoned for serious crime accounts for a large proportion
of the increased overall prison population. How can society afford
to adopt a position which is likely to result in more of these
type of criminal being free to continue committing serious crimes?
So, in order to reduce the number in prison,
the authorities would need to target those who commit the more
minor offences but, as explained above, these criminals are the
persistent offenders who have previously shown that they do not,
or will not, respond to non-custodial programmes. They will continue
to offend. The likelihood is that the downward trend in the level
of crime will be reversed. Crime will increase.
As stated in the introduction, we support the
availability of a range of sentencing options to the courts. That
includes the system of warnings and non-custodial penalties proposed
in the Crime and Disorder Bill. Nonetheless, it is our view that
these are not alternatives to imprisonment, rather they are options
to be adopted for minor crimes where the offender does not have
a proven record of persistent offending and where there is a real
and substantial prospect of the criminal responding to the programme
for reform linked to many of them.
That last caveat is crucial. Research has shown
that, unless there is a proper assessment of an individual and
unless the sentence is progressed in a manner which takes account
of the capabilities and needs of the individual (and this includes
finding the right probation officer to supervise the person),
a positive outcome to the sentence is unlikely.
Has the probation service got the time and resources
to undertake such work? At this time it clearly has not. The proposals
in the Crime and Disorder Bill, if enacted, will increase the
burden on the probation service even more. The need for more resources
will be even more essential.
Electronic tagging and home curfew orders have
been piloted in a few places during the last year or so. The Crime
and Disorder Bill includes provisions to release convicted criminals
from prison early provided they are willing and appropriate candidates
for home curfews and electronic tagging. We have some real concerns
The pilot studies are yet to be conclusive.
Whilst there has been a growth in the number of orders being made
and an improvement in the number of those completing the orders,
there is no indication of whether those criminals have continued
to offend. Indeed, one of our misgivings concerns the ability
for these people to continue to offend at those times when they
are not confined to their homes under the terms of a curfew. The
jury is still out with regard to the efficacy of electronic tagging.
Moreover, electronic tagging and home curfew
orders may only be imposed for a maximum of six months, a relatively
short period. The average sentence imposed in the trial areas
is much less than this. Clearly this is not an effectual alternative
In respect of early release, we see this as
nothing more than a cost cutting exercise disguised behind the
argument that released prisoners will learn to lead a disciplined
and lawful life by having to conform to the restrictions placed
on them. If that is so, we contend that there is no need to release
these offenders early but to impose the restriction after they
have served their sentence, bearing in mind that those to whom
this would apply will have been released having served only half
the sentence meted out by the court.
We are unable to comment on the comparative
costs of custodial and non-custodial sentences. Nonetheless we
wish to widen the discussion on cost to include the hidden cost
of crime. It seems to us that this element is always avoided,
partly because it is difficult to determine with any accuracy,
but primarily because the government and the various agencies
involved are not accountable for it. The victims always bear the
cost of crime.
It is difficult to estimate the cost of a crime
but attempts to do so in pure financial terms conservatively calculate
the average figure to be around £5,000 per crime, taking
into account the cost of the investigation and the processing
of a case and the financial loss to the victim. In more serious
cases the cost is significantly higher. Murder investigations,
for example, cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
These figures do not reveal the whole costthe
human cost of being a victim of crime. However, that cost should
not be ignored simply because it cannot be calculated in financial
American studies have concluded that between
15 and 21 crimes, of varying seriousness, are prevented for each
extra criminal imprisoned. That amounts to the saving of a substantial
amount of money and human distress.
Prisons have been described, by some, as universities
of crime where minor criminals graduate into hardened criminals
through making contact with and learning from other inmates. The
argument continues that once released from prison these criminals
go on to commit more serious crimes or are more skilful in committing
We would counter this by saying that whilst
inside prison they are not committing crime whereas those serving
non-custodial sentences are continuing to associate with other
active criminals, learning new skills and practising them as frequently
as possible in the "workplace". They are honing their
skills on their victims; prisoners are not.
To maintain the analogy, in prison those who
wish to may be able to learn the theory but those outside are
serving an apprenticeship with the emphasis on hands-on experience.
It is crucial therefore that this Home Affairs
Committee Inquiry considers the impact of any proposals it might
receive on the level of crime. We have endeavoured to show that
there is a real risk of crime increasing if fewer criminals are
imprisoned. Prison does work, especially in relation to those
who are persistent offenders. A rush to reduce the prison population
by the increased use of non-custodial sentences would undermine
the battle against criminality in this country.
Finally, costs should not be calculated in financial
terms alone, although we appreciate that there are limited funds
available in the public purse. The personal and human cost of
crime to the victims must be taken into consideration.
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