Memorandum by Mr Colin H Roberts, University
EFFECTIVE SENTENCING: EVIDENCE FROM RESEARCH
WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO COMMUNITY SENTENCES AND THE WORK
OF THE PROBATION SERVICE
The Probation Studies Unit (PSU) of the University's
Centre for Criminological Research was commissioned by ACOP to
summarise evidence relevant to an inquiry into alternatives to
prison sentences, and this paper has been prepared in response.
It should be emphasised that the views expressed are those of
the author in consultation with Dr Ros Burnett and other members
of the PSU, and not necessarily those of ACOP. If invited, the
author will be willing to give oral evidence to the Committee
and to answer any questions relating to this paper.
This paper is focused on the effectiveness of
sentences in reducing the likelihood of re-offending. Particular
emphasis is given to the actual and potential contribution of
the Probation Service in helping to achieve this objective.
The paper has three central arguments:
Criminological research has established that
the majority of people who are convicted of committing offences
respond to existing sanctions and social controls, while a small
percentage of persistent offenders are responsible for a high
percentage of all criminal convictions and the majority of the
most serious offences. Further, there is substantial evidence
of the main correlates of different stages of criminal careers
(onset, persistence and desistence). Although many correlates
of persistent criminal behaviour are linked to events in the past
(such as poor parenting) or static variables (such as age
at time of the first offence), persistence in criminal behaviour
and increased seriousness in the nature of offences committed
are associated with dynamic social, cognitive and behavioural
factors. These "dynamic" factors are susceptible to
modification and influence. Sentencing policy and decisions should,
therefore, have regard to the best means of achieving such modification
and influence, in order to effect reduction in re-offending rates
and the amount of serious crime which is committed. There is a
need to focus on the "criminogenic" characteristics
of persistent offenders and variables associated with desistence,
and to use interventions that will promote motivation to change
and help prevent relapse.
(2) Community sentences are largely
more appropriate than imprisonment for dealing with factors associated
with persistence in offending, and encouraging desistence.
Evidence on the comparative effects of existing
disposals reveals that community sentences are more geared to
dealing with these "criminogenic" and desistence factors
than are prison sentences. Probation Orders have the greatest
potential because of their versatility and potential to be used
in highly specific and individualised ways. They also enable probation
services to work in partnership with other agencies in the community.
And there is a growing body of international research evidence
on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural programmes as components
of Probation Orders. It may be that the potential effectiveness
of other community sentences, particularly Combination Orders,
Community Service Orders and Senior Attendance Centre Orders,
is greater than has been fully realised. There is a need for more
research into specific aspects of all existing community sentences
so that the best models can be matched to offenders and consistently
implemented. For example, the potential value of Electronic Monitoring
for use in conjunction with Probation and Combination Orders in
appropriate cases, merits further investigation.
(3) A dramatic reduction in the rate
and seriousness of re-offending could best be achieved by improvements
to probation practice, together with opportunities to embrace
Recent advances in probation service practice
should not be underestimated. Developments within all services
include: a more consistent and explicit focus on working with
offenders to modify patterns of thought and behaviour associated
with their offending; the development and increased use of group
work programmes; and a great expansion in inter-agency co-operation
and partnership projects. Improvements have, so far, not been
uniform across all services, but if all services were able to
reach the standard of current best practice, then the resulting
impact on the rate and seriousness of re-offending could be expected
to be considerable. There is a need for consistently high quality
supervision that is focused on criminogenic and desistence factors
and the promotion of motivation and relapse prevention, and delivered
in a variety of contexts: one-to-one supervision, group programmes,
hostels, inter-professionally (eg with psychiatrists and psychologists)
and via partnerships with other organisations. Probation Services
should be encouraged to embrace new developments (eg selective
use of electronic monitoring as a new positive dimension to Probation
or Combination Orders; collaborative delivery of Senior Attendance
Centre Orders to a wider range of offenders). Further, Probation
Services are well positioned to contribute to other means of reducing
the prison population through their work within prisons, their
responsibilities for through-care and licence supervision, and
their role in providing bail information and bail hostel beds.
A sufficient number and combination of skilled staff and adequate
resources are required to ensure high quality interventions with
persistent offenders and a sustained impact on re-offending rates.
There are clearly many salient issues that need
careful consideration in an inquiry into the potential benefits
of the different sentences for offenders, in particular those
which might be considered alternatives to imprisonment. This submission
does not attempt to address all of the issues, but, rather, concentrates
on some key ones concerning the effects of such sentences on those
adult offenders who receive them. It does not address the effects
of such sentences on wider public opinion, or on potential offenders,
or on offenders who have not been convicted, nor does it consider
the relative financial or other social costs of different kinds
of custodial and non-custodial sentences.
To understand whether and how different types
of sentences may influence future offending, we first need to:
(1) identify the major factors that are associated with the start
of such anti-social behaviours (onset factors); (2) examine the
reasons why some persist in their offending in spite of sanctions,
often going on to commit more serious and harmful offences (persistence
factors); and (3) explore the reasons why the vast majority of
even the most persistent offenders eventually desist from offending
(desistence factors). If we can build on a clear understanding
of the key stages in the development of criminal careers, we are
then more likely to be able to modify effectively the future criminal
actions of persistent offenders.
What is clear from a growing body of international
research into criminal careers (Farrington 1993; Farrington and
Tarling 1985; Feldman 1993; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Sampson
and Laub 1994) is that onset, persistence and desistence factors
are made up of a wide range of variables, largely related to offenders'
social circumstances and close personal relationships, individual
temperament and personality characteristics, their cognitive and
reasoning skills, their mental health and degree of addictions,
and their personal pre-dispositions and attitudes to offending
and potential victims.
Evidence is accumulating from North America
(Gendreau 1995), the United Kingdom (Farrington 1993), Australasia
(Trotter 1993) and Europe (L½sel 1995) of the factors that
are indicative of onset, persistence and desistence, whether recorded
by official processing or by self-reported behaviours. There are
now reviews of such research which reveal close similarity between
the findings of a large number of studies which have been conducted
in different criminal justice systems, and in different social
and cultural context. For example, Andrews and Bonta (1994) found
the same factors were identified in a large sample of research
into criminal careers carried out in the USA, Canada, United Kingdom,
Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia and New Zealand.
Such "criminal career research" clearly
indicates that while the problems related to anti-social behaviour
are common in the offending population, especially amongst younger
men, it is only a small minority of the population who persist
in committing such acts over any period of time.
Home Office cohort studies (Tarling 1993; Home
Office 1995b) covering four decades, show that by age 40, 34 per
cent of men and 8 per cent of women have been convicted of "standard
list" offences (which exclude most road traffic offences
and the majority of "summary only" offences). Of the
men who have been convicted, 55 per cent had only the one conviction
and court appearance, and 16 per cent had no more than two in
total. However, 5 per cent had six or more convictions and accounted
for 48 per cent of all the convictions of all the male offenders.
This minority had criminal careers which, on average, lasted over
20 years and featured three or more custodial sentences by age
The picture of criminal careers for women, obtained
from the same cohort studies, is similar but on a much reduced
scale. Of the 8 per cent of women who had convictions an even
higher proportion than amongst men had only one conviction (78
per cent) and 13 per cent had no more than two in total. However,
1 per cent of the women convicted had six or more convictions,
had criminal careers of 20 years or more and had received at least
two or more prior custodial sentences by age 40.
These offenders also account, even more disproportionately,
for the most serious and harmful offences that are dealt with
by the courts. Of those who received, at some stage in their criminal
careers, custodial sentences of four years or more, 92 per cent
of the men and 91 per cent of the women had six or more previous
convictions, and the vast majority had criminal careers of 20
years or more at the time of sentence.
As one might reasonably expect, "self-report"
studies show an even higher prevalence of criminal and anti-social
behaviour, but, like reconviction studies, also show that a disproportionate
number of self-reported criminal actions are committed by a minority
who report frequent and persistent patterns of such behaviour.
A recent Home Office self-report study of young people and crime
(Graham and Bowling, 1995) shows that the involvement of 14-25
year olds in illegal drug use and other criminal offences is very
wide-spread. Over 50 per cent of young men and 30 per cent of
young women admitted to committing criminal offences and 45 per
cent and 26 per cent admitted to using illegal drugs at some time
in the previous five year period. One in four of the young men
and one in eight of the young women admitted committing an offence
in the previous 12 months and, of these, 25 per cent of men and
10 per cent of the women admitted committing more than five offences
in the past year. There was a strong association between criminal
offences and illegal drug usage, in that 90 per cent of the self-reported
offenders also reported illegal drug usage. Most offending was
relatively minor and infrequent, and the majority of drug users
confined their occasional usage to cannabis. However, 4 per cent
of the young men offenders and 1 per cent of the women offenders
admitted committing more than 50 offences during the previous
12 months, which accounted for more than 40 per cent of all the
self-reported offences, and an even greater proportion of the
most serious and harmful actions. What the study also showed was
the peak age for participation (self-reported) in offending and
drug use was 20 to 21 years for males and 16 to 17 years for females,
although different types of offending behaviour were associated
with different peak ages.
In both official conviction studies and self-report
studies, evidence exists that the younger the offender is when
they first come to the notice of the authority the more likely
they are to persist in their offending and to have longer criminal
careers. The Home Office cohort studies support previous evidence
of an association between age at first conviction, the persistence
of convictions and the length of criminal careers.
This is particularly significant for young men
whereas with women there is an association but it is less dramatic
There is, however, a small but important group
of adult persistent offenders who do not commence persistent offending
until they are adults. These so called "late starters"
are particularly important because they constitute a large proportion
of petty persistent offenders; that is, offenders who do not usually
commit serious offences, but who do commit large numbers of the
more minor offences, such as petty theft, criminal damage, drunkenness,
begging and vagrancy; minor violence and threatening behaviour,
and public order offences. Studies in London and the north of
England (Fairhead 1981; Corden 1983) have shown that many of these
persistent petty offenders have indicative factors (symptoms)
directly associated with life crisis and breakdowns; often a mixture
of mental illness, marital and/or family break-up, alcohol abuse,
redundancy, bereavement, and loss of accommodation. Whether individually
or in interaction with each other, these critical life events
and changes are causally related to persistent offending behaviour.
Such offending is directly associated with: increased probabilities
of social isolation and homelessness; chronic physical health
problems and lack of access to primary health care; continuing
alcohol and, occasionally, drug abuse; recurring mental health
problems and failures to take medication; and no reliable legitimate
income and reduced access to other financial supports.
These persistent petty offenders pose major
difficulties for all agencies. Police, Prisons, Probation, Health
Services, Housing, and specialist voluntary agencies (eg night
shelters) all struggle to find ways of dealing appropriately with
such individuals in the context of multiple personal problems.
In recent years efforts have been made to ensure that such offenders,
whilst often troublesome to the public, are not imprisoned solely
because of the nature and complexity of their lifestyle and social
problems. Appropriate sentencing responses are difficult to achieve,
especially in the light of growing concerns about offending in
public places, plus reductions in the support which can be provided
for such people by other agencies (eg Health and Social Services).
It is undoubtedly the case that the vast majority
of people who offend, and who are actually brought before the
courts and convicted, respond positively to existing sanctions
and controls, whether statutory or social or a combination of
both. These offenders are not generally re-convicted of further
offences and do not self-report continued offending behaviour
(Mair 1997; Lloyd et al 1997). The apparent success of police
cautioning and the sentencing practices of the courts with the
vast majority of these offenders who are arrested, convicted and
sentenced needs to be recognised. The majority of offenders with
few previous convictions, and who are sentenced for the less serious
offences, are dealt with by way of discharges, fines (and compensation
orders), attendance centre orders, probation orders and community
service orders. These disposals should therefore be viewed as
largely successful, in that the majority of such non-persistent
offenders complete these sentences successfully, complying with
the conditions and avoiding re-offending.
With the dramatic reduction in the use of fines
as the principal sentence in the magistrates courts there is concern
that more intrusive or costly penalties are being used as alternatives
to monetary and other penalties (Taylor 1997). There is no evidence
to suggest that the additional oversight, support and discipline
of probation or community service orders is necessary to ensure
that these do not re-offend. Probation Services are now struggling
to find the resources necessary to administer supervision of offenders
who are unlikely to re-appear before the courts. At the same time
resources are increasingly required to supervise and manage far
more persistent and potentially harmful offenders, some subject
to sentences imposed by the court, but increasingly on licences
following custodial sentences. It is the apparent "failure"
of sentences applied to persistent offenders which may have been
giving greatest concern, and may be one factor which has contributed
to the increased use and length of custodial sentences imposed
by the courts in England and Wales in the past decade (White &
What then do we know about the characteristics
of the majority of persistent offenders? Criminal career research
has shown that factors explaining why some people become delinquent
in their early years are not always precisely the same as factors
underlying persistence, including in some cases the commission
of increasingly serious and harmful offences. Nor are explanations
of persistence the precise inverse of factors explaining why the
majority of most persistent offenders desist from further or serious
offending in later life. There are patterns of behaviour which
are established in early life which, if not checked or modified,
lead from early delinquency into adult criminality (Stewart &
Stewart 1993). But those factors (often called "criminogenic"Andrews
& Bonta 1994, Hollin 1996, McGuire 1995) which are most strongly
associated with persistence in criminal careers, and with desistence,
are undoubtedly the most important to focus on in order to modify
the future behaviour of such offenders (Shover 1996; Maruna 1997).
These criminogenic factors are:
(i) Anti-social and pro-criminal
attitudes, values and beliefs.
(ii) Poor self-control,
self-management and problem solving skills; cognitive deficits.
(iii) Limited or indifferent
awareness of victims, insensitivity to needs of other people;
(iv) Identification and
associations with pro-criminal friends; pro-criminal life-style.
(v) Low levels of educational
and vocational achievement; long-term unemployment.
(vi) Dependency on benefits;
acute financial/debt problems; poor money management skills.
(vii) Breakdown of close
personal relationships; weak or non-existent family support; social
(viii) Weak local community
ties; insecure or unstable accommodation.
(ix) Persistent drug
and/or alcohol abuse.
(x) High level of personal
distress; mental health problems; self-abuse.
It is important to identify the factors which
can be changed or modified in the future ("dynamic"
factors), and which are directly associated with persistence and
the potential for desistence in offending (Burnett 1992; Ramsay
1996; Walters 1990). Reductions in the frequency and seriousness
of offending behaviour require a focus on such "dynamic"
factors, and the availability to the courts of disposals which
can effectively address them (Andrews 1995; Hollin 1996). There
is now a growing body of international research exploring the
effectiveness of these "psychosocial interventions"
which indicates that the largest and most consistent effect on
re-offending could be achieved by addressing the dynamic variables
associated with re-offending (Hood 1993).
One additional and significant factor that also
directly affects the likelihood of reduced re-offending is that
of motivation (Andrews & Bonta 1994; Millar & Rollnick
1994). Unless persistent offenders have some desire to desist
from future offending and wish actively to consider alternatives,
then most well-designed "psychosocial interventions"
are unlikely to have any impact. Other offenders may wish to change,
but may have neither the personal ability to persevere nor the
interpersonal support and encouragement to retain their commitment
to desistence. Both these aspects of motivation need to be recognised
and included in any intervention which aims to modify future offending
behaviour. Additionally, it is necessary to include methods aimed
at relapse prevention to ensure any positive changes are maintained
over time (Wanigaratne et al. 1990).
Given this increased knowledge of, on the one
hand, factors which explain why some offenders are persistent
and have long-term criminal careers and, on the other hand, factors
linked to desistence, it is appropriate to ask how well existing
disposals, both custodial and non-custodial, measure up in addressing
these critical factors.
The removal of offenders from the community
and their resulting incapacitation clearly has some measurable
benefits, both for the community and for the offenders themselves.
Custody provides time for positive reflection on previous behaviour
and its consequences, a period of protracted abstinence from addictive
substances (Burnett 1992), separation from individuals and situations
that had previously been linked with offending and, in some cases,
protection from other offenders. Longer-term sentences may provide
opportunities for vocational and educational training and, in
the best resourced prisons, attendance at accredited programmes
focused on aspects of their offending (Lo£sel 1995). The
availability of these resources is, of course, reduced during
periods of over-crowding (Woolf 1991). If most prisoners could
be located in prisons close to their home area, then many more
positive influences could be more consistently provided (Roberts
1994). Also, integrated sentence planning which assesses the relevant
"criminogenic" and "desistence" needs of prisoners,
as part of appropriate prison provision (including accredited
programmes), release and resettlement planning, and complimentary
post-release supervision by probation officers, could all have
positive effects on re-offending.
But there are numerous reasons why imprisonment
does not address criminogenic factors and, in fact, increases
the risk of future offending (Clarke 1995). The 1990 White Paper,
"Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public" acknowledged
that "nobody regards imprisonment as an effective means of
reform . . . prison is a society which requires virtually
no sense of personal responsibility from prisoners . . .
the opportunity to learn about crime from other prisoners is pervasive
. . . it can be an expensive way of making bad people
worse . . . the prospects of reforming offenders are much
better if they stay in the community". Not only does imprisonment
increase the level and intensity of contamination between offenders,
it can re-affirm pro-criminal values, beliefs and attitudes and
negate commitment to desistence. It inevitably increases the range
and predominance of pro-criminal associations and this, in effect,
can promote more serious and harmful criminal intentions (Clear
& Braga 1995; Roberts, C 1995). Imprisonment can seriously
damage long-term partnerships and family relationships, with consequent
loss of accommodation on release (Morris et al 1996). The constraints
of institutional life increased dependency, deny independent decision-making
and render offenders less able to help themselves. It serves,
in many instances, to reduce motivation to make positive life
changes on release. Rather than guaranteeing abstinence from drugs,
some prisons can increase contact with illegal drugs and offenders
can become dependent on drugs during prison sentences. For those
offenders with mental health problems, imprisonment can mean less
access to psychiatric treatment and appropriate medication (Hodgins
1993, Birmingham et al 1996).
Because the nature of this sentence is dependent
on what happens in the interim period, deferred sentences have
the potential to encourage or reinforce active steps to desistence
and self-motivated change. Offenders are, on occasions, given
explicit guidance by sentencers about what steps he or she might
take, for example reduce a drug habit or hold down a job, in order
to influence the final sentence which will be passed. There may
be potential for increased use of deferred sentences, but no information
is available on the potential beneficial effect of such explicit
directions, nor on the longer-term outcomes of deferred sentences.
Discharges and Suspended Prison Sentences
These essentially leave the offender to their
own devices in determining how best to avoid future convictions.
Those subject to conditional discharges, or suspended sentences,
face the potential negative consequence of a more severe sentence
if re-convicted, in addition to being re-sentenced for the original
offence/s. Suspended sentences place no restrictions other than
the obligation not to offend. With persistent offenders, suspended
sentences have resulted in a high level of breach and thereby
have actually increased the prison population (Bottoms 1981).
There has also, since 1973, been provision for Suspended Sentence
Supervision Orders (SSSOs), in which supervision is undertaken
by Probation Officers. In practical terms, the supervision does
not differ from that provided under Probation Orders, with the
exception that no special requirements can be added to SSSOs.
Fines and Compensation Orders
Financial penalties also leave the offender
to determine how best to avoid future convictions and court appearances,
although a Compensation Order may act as a direct reminder of
the victim's losses. Compensation Orders (CO) can be made either
in addition to or instead of a fine or other disposal, but if
both a fine and a CO are imposed, the court must give preference
to the CO if the offender's means are insufficient to pay both
and may therefore impose a reduced fine. But major consequences
of financial penalties for offenders still revolve around their
ability to pay them on time. Some offenders are put at greater
risk of imprisonment, due to their inability or unwillingness
to pay, than they were for their original convictions. That is,
an offender's shortage of money and the consequent reduction of
legitimate disposable income in paying fines, can result in hardship
which may in fact increase the probability of re-offending. The
1991 Criminal Justice Act introduced unit fines after a successful
series of pilot studies in four magistrates courts; however, in
the Act, the size of units was considerably increased, and after
less than one year the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, rescinded
the provisions for unit fines.
Senior Attendance Centres
The provision of Senior Attendance Centres,
for adult offenders up to the age of 21, is still very piecemeal,
and they have never been available to all courts. The time penalty
is considerably less than for the shortest Community Service Orders.
The range of different activities offerededucational, vocational,
physical and sportingvary considerably from centre to centre.
Very little evaluation has been done of the benefits of different
curriculum on subsequent offender behaviour (Mair 1991). The potential
exists for offenders to work on improving their attitudes and
behaviour in a limited way during such short orders. The potential
for contamination does exist for young adult offenders who are
less persistent or knowledgeable about offending, but the very
short nature of these orders probably minimises such negative
Community Service Orders
Community Service (CS), first proposed in the
Wootton Report in 1970, has been developed by Probation Services
in England and Wales from 1973 onwards. Its primary purpose was
to act as an alternative to custody (Pease 1977) but it was also
promoted as a penalty which deprives offenders of personal time
and which requires them to do work which would be of direct benefit
to the wider community (May 1995). The reparative aspect is to
the wider community rather than to the individual victims, but
there is the added potential benefit of reinforcing to the offender
the needs to "pay-back" for wrong doing. The range of
work facilitated by CS has, from the start, been very varied (Roberts
1980), both between and within probation services. The potential
for a contamination effect when putting together groups of offenders
with varying prior criminal careers and knowledge of offending,
poses a degree of risk. However, the potential gains of CS for
individual offenders are considerable, and there is some evidence
of their influence on re-offending (McIvor 1992). These include:
getting into a regular pattern of working, if only for a few hours
per week; learning some direct skills and competencies; seeing
the benefits for recipients of the work undertaken; gaining satisfaction
from helping others often less fortunate then themselves; and
completing tasks as part of a team. It is clear that each of these
can serve as positive forces to encourage change and desistence
in offenders. Furthermore, by means of assessment of the work
done on CS, some Probation Services are now making it possible
for offenders to obtain credits towards qualifications (eg NVQs).
The Probation Order has been in existence since
1907 and its use and conditions have seen many changes over the
past 90 years. It remains by far the most flexible community sentence,
with the potential to be used in highly specific and individualised
ways, whether by varying lengths (six months to three years) or
by inclusion of one or more of a wide variety of conditions or
requirements, including residential requirements and psychiatric
or psychological treatment requirements. Because it can be tailored
to fit the specific problems and characteristics of each offender,
it has the potential to be directly linked to the very factors
which most address persistence and encourage desistance (Harland
1996). It has the flexibility of being able to engage the offender
in either one-to-one supervision and/or in groups, and to focus
on motivation factors and relapse prevention. It also enables
pro-social modelling (Trotter 1993) to be included as part of
the supervision process: that is, staff demonstrate to offenders
appropriate behaviour and responses in everyday situations, some
of which may be potential "flash-points" for offenders.
Probation Orders were traditionally focused
on welfare needs and less directly on specific offending behaviour
(Davies 1969; Morris and Tonry 1990). In the past 10 years, Probation
Orders have included a more specific offending behaviour focus
(McGuire 1995; Burnett 1996; Mair and May 1997). While much supervision
continues to be on a one-to-one basis, with supervision plans
drawn up by individual supervisors, the greatest growth has been
in the development of offending-related group programmes, usually
as a specific requirement of the Order (Mair 1994). The majority
of these group programmes now employ cognitive-behavioural approaches.
Some Probation Services run groups specifically for women, and
for black offenders with the aim of maximising the learning which
can be achieved. There is a growing body of international research
evidence on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural programmes,
which was recently reviewed by staff from the Home Office Research
and Statistics Directorate (Vennard, Hedderman and Sugg, 1997).
There is some evidence of the positive effects of such work in
this country (Raynor and Vanstone 1997; Roberts, J 1995; Roberts,
C 1989; 1995). There is considerable variation in the design,
curriculum content, staffing and evaluations of such programmes.
The effects of these variations are discussed in detail in a report
commissioned by HM Probation Inspectorate (Underdown 1998).
Further investigation is needed to assess the
impact of other requirements that can be added to Probation Orders.
The use of psychiatric conditions in Probation Orders has steadily
declined overe the past 10 years (Sheriff 1997) in spite of evidence
of the high prevalence of mental illness in persistent offenders
(Birmingham et al 1996; Home Office 1995a). Drug and alcohol treatment
conditions in Probation Orders, and conditions requiring psychological
treatment, are relatively new provisions, and only limited evidence
exists of their value and use (Sandham 1997; Sibbitt 1996).
Conditions of residence in Probation Orders
have a much longer history. Probation Hostels are used in a wide
variety of ways (Davies 1996), and the criteria for acceptance
varies by hostel. Traditionally, such hostels focused on younger
offenders with family and accommodation problems (Andrews 1979;
Sinclair 1971), but today hostles are less commonly used as a
condition of residence and accommodate a wide age range and frequently
supervise high-risk offenders. Again, little research has been
done to examine their current use, and to explore their potential
to be used in more specific and focused ways with residents who
may require a more criminogenic focus in work done with them (Worrall
A Probation Order is, arguably, the sentence
with the greatest potential to focus on the criminogenic factors
of relevance to an individual offender, and to deal directly with
desistence, motivation and relapse prevention (Raynor 1994). Potential
contamination effects clearly exist when offenders are brought
together, particularly in intenseive group programmes and hostels.
Some evidence exists which indicates that offenders at high risk
of re-offending in fact do better than expected on such programmes
(Andrews & Bonta 1994; Raynor & Vanstone 1997; Roberts,
C 1995) but also that low risk offenders do worse than expected
in terms of reconvictions, possibly as a consequence of contamination
by higher risk offenders.
However, there is considerable evidence to suggest
that making intense surveillance the major objective of the Probation
Order is unlikely to be effective. Research in the USA (Clear
& Braga 1995; Harland 1996; Petersilia & Turner 1990)
consistently shows only negative effects of such intensive probation
programmes, which involve often daily and random visits to offenders.
These intensive probation programmes have very high levels of
breakdown and technical violations, across different US jurisdictions,
without any measurable and positive effects on re-conviction rates.
In fact, the high level of technical violations has had the effect
of adding to increasing prison populations. In the USA, efficient
surveillance is more successfully achieved by electronic monitoring
than by the use of intensive probation programmes (Petersilia
& Turner 1990)
The combination of a Probation Order (with or
without requirements) and a Community Service Order was introduced
by the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, and has become a widely used
disposal by both Magistrates and Crown Courts (Sheriff 1997; Taylor
1997). As yet there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions
about the potential of these Combination Orders, although research
in Scotland (McIvor 1992) has demonstrated some beneficial effects
for the completion of the community service element for offenders
who are also on probation. To what extent the Combination Order
can more effectively address and encourage offenders to desist
from reoffending needs to be balanced against the potential negative
effects of overloading offenders (McIvor 1992). Some might not
have adequate personal skills and self-discipline to meet the
considerable demands of weekly community service and probation
conditions simultaneously. Statistics have revealed higher rates
of breaches (Sheriff 1997) for Combination Orders than for Probation
Orders (with or without requirements).
Electronic Monitoring and Home Curfew
The newest addition to Community Sentences in
this country has been the experimental use of electronic monitoring
to ensure home curfews. The first experiment in England and Wales
was largely unsuccessful (Mair & Nee 1990) due to considerable
technical problems and the indiscriminate use of "tags"
on offenders who were unlikely to comply with its restrictions.
More recent trials have been more successful on both of these
dimensions (Mortimer & Mair 1997). Recent reviews of the use
of electronic monitoring (Whitfield 1997) document the wide range
of ways in which electronic monitoring is now being used world-wide.
It has been recognised that it is of only limited value when simply
used to provide evidence of non-compliance with Court Orders for
curfew (Mair & Nee 1990). However, there is some evidence,
particularly in Sweden (Bishop 1996) of its potential to encourage
desistence from offending, at least for a limited period of time.
Some offenders find the "tag" helps them resist the
temptation to spend time with people or visit places associated
with their previous offending, although in Sweden the views of
offenders' families were mixed, in that parents were most positive
and partners were less so (Bishop 1996).
Whether home confinement as a direct consequence
of electronic monitoring puts some partners and children at more
risk than they might otherwise be, has not yet been evaluated.
Some of the direct short-term benefits of the use of electronic
monitoring devices need to be examined further, together with
its potential use alongside other disposals, particularly Probation
and Combination Orders.
The sentenced prison population dropped during
1992 but has risen remorselessly since early 1993 (White and Woodbridge
1997). There has been a rise in the average length of custodial
sentences imposed by the Crown Court. There has also been a significant
increase in the proportion of convicted offenders sentenced to
immediate custody at the Crown Court and, to a lesser extent,
in Magistrates' Courts. Much of the sentenced population is generated
by Crown Court sentencing, so the changes in the average length
and proportion given immediate custodial sentences at Crown Court
are particularly significant.
The increases in the sentenced prison population
have been across the range of types of offenders, but there has
been a gradual decline in the proportion of immediate custodial
sentences where a pre-sentence report (prepared by probation officers)
was requested, after a peak in late 1992 when the 1991 Criminal
Justice Act was first implemented (Sheriff 1997).
The number of offenders on Probation Orders
with no previous convictions fell to a low point of 11 per cent
of Probation Order commencements in 1991, but has since risen
to 18 per cent for 1996. The proportion of Probation Orders imposed
on offenders with at least one previous custodial sentence has
risen slightly from 37 per cent in 1991 to 38 per cent in 1996.
The proportion of Community Sentence Orders with no previous convictions
has also risen from 14 per cent in 1991 to 32 per cent in 1996,
but the proportion with at least one previous custodial sentence
has fallen from 33 per cent in 1992 to 24 per cent in 1996. This
may in part be a reflection of the fact that CS ceased to be "an
alternative to custody" following the implementation of the
1991 Criminal Justice Act (Sheriff 1997).
The Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate
now have available reconviction rates on offenders who, between
1987 and 1993, were released from prison sentences or were commencing
community sentences for standard list offences. They are able
to compare "raw" reconviction rates with adjusted reconviction
rates. The adjustments take account of "pseudo-reconvictions"
(convictions, after release from prison or after commencing a
community sentence, that relate to offences committed prior to
release or prior to the commencement of the community sentenceLloyd
et al 1994), and also key differences in the characteristics of
the offenders (including differences in their predicted or expected
reconviction rate over a two-year periodCopas et al 1996;
An analysis of the figures for the 1993 study
of reconviction rates showed that, after making adjustments for
"psuedo-reconvictions" and "predicted reconviction
rates", the difference between the overall two-year reconviction
rates for immediate custodial sentences and community sentences
(CS, Probation Orders with or without requirements and Combination
Orders) was one percentage point. This suggests that, at a national
level, there are no significant differences between reconviction
rates for immediate custodial and community sentences, although
differences have been found in some localised studies of comparative
reconviction rates (Roshier 1995; Oldfield 1996). However, an
analysis of the types of disposal that offenders received on reconviction
reveals important differences between the apparent effects of
custodial sentences and community sentences on the probability
of subsequent custodial sentences. Of those offenders released
from custodial sentences in 1993, 29 per cent of male offenders
and 18 per cent of female offenders were imprisoned again on their
first reconviction within two years of release. Whereas, of those
offenders who had been sentenced to Probation Orders (with or
without requirements), only 23 per cent of male offenders and
10 per cent of female offenders had been imprisoned on their first
reconviction. Amongst those who had been sentenced to Community
Service only 19 per cent of the male offenders and 11 per cent
of the female offenders had been imprisoned on their first reconviction.
The differences for Probation Orders are more significant because
the offenders on these orders had been rated, by the Home Office
"predictor", as having far greater chances of being
reconvicted within two years than those who received custodial
sentences (Copas et el 1996; Kershaw 1997). The differences for
CS Orders are also important in that these offenders had been
rated as having the same chances of reconviction within two years
as those who received custodial sentences.
This section will concentrate on Community Sentences
and not on all non-custodial penalties currently available to
the courts. Given current sentencing practice, the focus falls
largely on the work of Probation Services. There is considerable
potential for more of the work, which is currently done solely
by some Probation Services, to be done in the future in conjunction
with other agencies and organisations, via partnerships and joint
A Case Management Approach
Probation Services have made major strides in
refocusing their attention in Probation Orders onto offending
and associated behaviours (eg drug abuseSibbitt 1996; Sandham
1997). In relation to sex offending (Proctor & Flaxington
1996; STEP Report 1995), a high proportion of all services now
have carefully designed and targeted group programmes together
with procedures for assessing and managing risk (Home Office/ACOP
1997). But there is still a wide variation in provision of other
types of programmes (Underdown 1997), and in some large services
these variations exist within the same service. There is a need
for consistently higher quality supervision which is focused on
criminogenic factors, the promotion of motivation and relapse
prevention, and which is delivered in a variety of contexts: one-to-one
supervision, group programmes, hostels, inter-professional work
(eg psychiatrists and psychologists) and via partnerships with
other organisations (statutory, voluntary and commercial). Some
services (both large and small) are able to deliver well planned
and co-ordinated approaches. Many of these have been re-organised
to provide case management approaches, which thereby improve the
management of practice and the control of quality. In some services
there is scope for further development of practice and resources
to bring their delivery of community sentences into line with
best practice elsewhere (Burnett 1996).
Assessment and Risk Management
More structured and rigorous assessments, at
the stage when pre-sentence reports are prepared and when supervision
plans are first formulated, would help to identify relevant criminogenic
factors (Aubrey & Hough 1997; Roberts et al. 1996). These
would assist in the better matching of appropriate interventions
to offenders, and would begin to break down the culture of personalised
practice which is still prevalent in Probation Services (Hedderman
& Gelsthorpe 1997). Such rigorous assessment procedures would
also be a great aid in monitoring assessments of risk and in the
production of appropriate risk management plans. Furthermore,
such procedures would be particularly appropriate for the management
of those offenders who have the potential to do serious harm to
other people (Monahan & Steadman 1994). Some well-designed
assessment "tools" already exist (Sutton & Davis
1997; Roberts & Robinson 1997; Home Office/ACOP 1997), and
are being piloted in a number of services.
Integrated Supervision Plans
A more specific focus in supervision plans has
been shown to be related to positive change in offenders (Roberts
et al. 1996). More attention and quality control should be given
to the curriculum of programmes and to identifying which types
of offenders are most likely to benefit. Case management, rather
than "case-work" approaches, are more likely to deliver
the right fit between one-to-one supervision and group programmes;
and ongoing relapse prevention (Raynor 1994). Further,
there is scope for the more focused use of residential hostels
as part of an overall plan for appropriate offenders. This would
require further integration of hostel work with other types of
supervision in the community.
Improved Use of Partnerships and Inter-Professional
All Probation Services have formed some partnerships
with other voluntary and private agencies to deliver services.
However, some appear to be irrelevant to the needs of most offenders;
and many are significantly under-used, largely because report
writers and supervisors do not refer offenders to them (Roberts
et al. 1996). A better fit between assessments and supervision
plans is needed so that the optimum benefit of such partnership
projects is gained. For example, a significant number of offenders
have mental health problems that require co-ordinated work with
other agencies. Another example is that of domestic violence where,
again, a multi-agency approach is more likely to be effective
(Hague & Malos 1997).
Evaluation and Monitoring of Interventions
There is a need to build evaluation and monitoring
systems into assessment and service delivery. Evaluation should
be integrated into day-to-day decisions and practices and should
not be seen as an activity to be undertaken occasionally. If properly
done this will not only provide high-quality data and evidence
of the effectiveness or otherwise of different practices with
different offenders, but will also assist in future planning and
targeting of resources. Positive outcomes revealed by evaluations
can then be fed back to those who use community sentences; in
particular, sentencers and the wider public. In addition to routine
evaluation there is also a need for research of a longitudinal
nature to obtain detailed information about criminal careers and
longer-term desistence (Mair 1997; Raynor 1996; Tarling 1993).
Improvement of existing provisions and willingness
to explore new practices
Evidence outlined in previous sections in this
paper shows that many Probation Services have taken steps to raise
the quality of the existing disposals for which they have responsibility.
The improvement of existing practices would probably achieve the
most dramatic results in efforts to reduce re-offending.
Probation Services have historically shown great
adaptability (eg the introduction of Community Service in 1972)
and should continue to embrace new developments. Electronic monitoring
is a development that requires co-operation so that the benefits
of any curfews can be enhanced by additional supervision measures
(Whitfield 1997). Indeed, electronic monitoring could provide
a new positive dimension to Probation or Combination Orders, if
used selectively following careful assessments. The expertise
that probation services have developed in community service and
in delivering group based activities could be used to modify and
improve the use of Senior Attendance Centres and make them nationally
available to a wider range of offenders and more appropriate to
those who would be required to attend them. Improved and comprehensive
provision of such centres would provide a far better penalty for
non-payment of financial penalties than using community service
orders or imprisonment (West 1978). Other collaborative developments
may well also be appropriately integrated into existing community
sentences. The Car Crime Programme run by the Probation Board
for Northern Ireland is an example of such collaborative projects.
As well as the provision of non-custodial community
sentences there are other aspects of the criminal justice system
which clearly affect the size of the prison population. Reductions
in the length of prison sentences themselves, and the availability
of provisions for temporary release and early release, offer opportunities
to reduce the real length of custodial sentences without exposing
the public to greater risk. Pre-trial decisions about bail and
remands also significantly influence the size of the daily prison
population; it is timely to address these factors alongside the
use of non-custodial and community sentences. Again, Probation
Services occupy positions of influence in these respects through
their work within prisons, their responsibilities for throughcare
and licence supervision, and their role in providing bail information
and bail hostel beds (Hardy 1997). These aspects of their work
need to be further developed alongside their more familiar roles
of writing court reports and supervising offenders who are serving
Evidence of the characteristics of persistent
offenders demonstrates the need to be able directly to address
those factors that encourage continuation of offending and, conversely,
those that enable desistence from re-offending. Only if these
factors are accurately identified and appropriately tackled can
there be any real chance of reducing the amount and the seriousness
of the offending these individuals commit. Whilst custodial sentences
provide limited public protection by incapacitation, on the whole
they do little to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. However,
community sentences are often perceived as a "let-off"
or "being soft on offenders". Undoubtedly, community
sentences with the right ingredients, properly targeted and rigorously
used, can be the means to reduce the probability of re-offending
in those who have the greatest likelihood of persisting.
Clearly, the public and sentencers need to have
confidence in community sentences, and thereby particularly in
the work of probation services and partnership agencies, if community
sentences are to be used more widely for persistent offenders.
We have evidence that, with accurate assessment and rigorous delivery
of mixtures of one-to-one supervision, group programmes, residence
in hostels, and referral to appropriate partnership provision,
and the appropriate use of the electronic "tag", community
sentences can have measurably beneficial effects influencing desistence
from further offending and reducing the number of relapses. But,
to achieve such results more reliabily, probation services and
partnership organisations need to do more to improve the consistency
and quality of community sentences and to integrate the evidence
of "what works" into all aspects of service delivery.
Regardless of such improvements, however, probation services also
need more commitment and public support from politicians, civil
servants, the media and sentencers for the difficult and demanding
job of rigorously supervising persistent and sometimes dangerous
offenders in the community. They need to feel confident that their
efforts will be "backed" so long as they deliver the
appropriate types of supervision in consistent and effective ways.
They also need to be able to draw on more extensive research into
the effectiveness of community sentences, and better in-house
evaluation procedures, in order to improve their "targeting"
and the content and delivery of supervision. High quality interventions
with persistent offenders need to be adequately resourced to ensure
effective outcomes and there needs to be the right mix of skills
and trained staff available to implement them consistently.
Colin H Roberts
Senior Research Fellow, Probation Studies Unit, Fellow
of Green College and University Lecturer in Applied Social Studies,
University of Oxford
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