Category Archives: Community Sentences
More than 10,000 people who committed a serious violent crime last year were let off without a formal conviction, new figures show.
The offenders were instead dealt with by ‘community resolutions’, which range from apologies to offers of compensation.
The figures are based on Freedom of Information requests obtained from police forces in England and Wales by the Labour party.
According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, community resolutions should only be used to deal with low level crime or anti-social behaviour and do not lead to a criminal record.
The punishment was introduced as a quicker way of dealing with less serious crime.
But in 2012, 10,160 were handed to criminals who committed serious violent crime – making up nearly 14% in some police forces – as well as to 2,488 who committed domestic violence.
The number of community resolutions being issued in cases of violent crime has risen from 7,621 in 2010 to 8,523 in 2011.
However, the new figures show the largest increase was from 792 in 2008 to 5,173 in 2009.
Yvette Cooper MP, shadow home secretary, claims that police cuts have lead to the rise in the use of community resolutions, with officers now under more pressure with less resources.
“These figures are extremely serious,” she said.
“There has been a massive increase in the number of serious and violent crimes dealt with just by community resolution ever since the police cuts started – breaking all the expert guidance and promises from ministers.
“Offenders who admit to serious and violent crimes – including knife crime, domestic violence, and serious assault – are increasingly being let off with no criminal record, no justice, and not even a caution. That’s bad for justice, bad for victims, and goes against all the evidence.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Crime continues to fall – recorded crime is down by more than 10% under this Government and the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales shows crime is at its lowest level since records began.
“It is the responsibility of Chief Constables to ensure that community resolutions are used appropriately. Through crime maps and Police and Crime Commissioners, the public now have the means to hold them to account.”
The Association of Chief Police Officers defended the use of restorative justice and community resolutions.
Greater Manchester assistant chief constable Garry Shewan, who speaks for Acpo on the subject, said: “Community resolutions, including restorative justice, offer clear benefits to both victim and offender, and give police flexibility to deal with a variety of offences effectively.
“Guidelines are in place to help forces decide where the use of community resolutions might be appropriate, but in every case, this decision will be victim led and above all reflect their views and wishes.
“While in the main they are used to deal with less serious offences, there is no simple formula.
“At times it may be necessary, and appropriate, to use such informal resolutions to deal with more serious cases. In such circumstances, it is far more than likely there will be a restorative justice element to the resolution.
“Many victims of crime tell us that they feel the criminal justice system and courts take over and they are left out, but meeting the offender can bring a degree of closure and help them to move on with their lives.
“Going through a restorative justice meeting has also been proven to have more impact on an offender than a prison sentence or a court punishment alone, as they see the consequences of their actions and so want to make changes in their future behaviour.
“In each force where restorative justice is offered to victims, specially trained officers will work hard with victims of crime to offer a resolution to their case that they are satisfied with.
“This will involve carefully assessing the specific circumstances, taking into account the relationship between victim and offender, and crucially, the vulnerabilities of the victim.
“We are clear that these cases should be judged upon their outcomes, not only for the victim, but the offender and wider community.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband, speaking on ITV’s Daybreak, said: “Today we have got evidence that 10,000 violent offenders are getting off without a caution but with so-called community resolution.
“I am in favour of community resolution for… graffiti-ing a wall, anti-social behaviour. I am not in favour of it for violent offences. I think that really needs to be looked at.
“We have got fewer police on our streets.
“If it is the fact that there are fewer police and therefore these violent offenders are getting away without even a caution, I think that is something we should be really worried about.”
The Government is to shake up community sentences for women offenders in a bid to steer them away from jail.
Justice minister Helen Grant revealed plans for a new advisory board on female offenders, which will include looking at overhauling community sentences to offer a credible alternative to custody.
The move is part of a wider drive to tackle the unique struggles faced by female offenders and bring down the reoffending rate among women.
The Ministry of Justice said it costs £45,000 to keep a woman in prison for one year, while almost 45% of all women released from custody in 2010 reoffended within 12 months, committing more than 10,000 further offences.
Ms Grant said: “Many female offenders share the same depressingly familiar issues of abuse, drug and alcohol dependency and mental health problems.
“Women who commit crime should be punished, but we must not forget that a significant number have been victims during their lives, and need targeted support to break the cycle of offending.”
The department said up to 56% of women offenders have been in care and the proportion of female prisoners that report abuse in their lifetime is double that of males.
In addition, around 60% of women leave behind dependent children when entering prison.
The new advisory board will consider a range of issues, including use of community orders, backed by unpaid work and tagging, as well as locating female prisoners near to their families.
The approach comes as the Government moves ahead with its “rehabilitation revolution” proposals, which will see the majority of probation services contracted out to the private sector and charities.
Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon broadly welcomed the Government’s stance but urged for legislation to be passed to provide for women in the criminal justice system.
She said: “History shows that, in the absence of specific legislation, commitments to address women’s different needs are often not realised, and momentum can be lost as ministers and officials come and go.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, welcomed the sentiments but criticised the statement for lacking detail.
He said: “It does, however, reflect the fact that community sentences are a far more appropriate way of dealing with the vast majority of women currently in prison, including all those who have committed non-violent crimes.”
The Government’s overhaul of community sentences will ensure the public have confidence in the system, Justice Minister Lord McNally said today as he introduced the detailed plans in Parliament.
Lord McNally said the system will be strengthened to ensure “non-custodial sentences provide robust punishment, are effective in reducing reoffending and give a better deal to victims”.
His comments follow pledges last week from Prime Minister David Cameron and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to toughen up community sentences.
The new provisions are contained in a string of Government amendments set to be made to the Crime and Courts Bill in the House of Lords today.
The plans involve ensuring non-custodial sentences carry a punitive element except in “exceptional circumstances”, using new technology to track offenders, expanding the use of restorative justice, removing the £5,000 limit on compensation orders in magistrates’ courts and giving courts new powers to find out about the wealth of people they are sentencing.
But Labour shadow Home Office minister Lord Rosser questioned whether Government’s real intention was to get the courts to impose tougher sentences “or give the impression this is the case for the benefit of the Conservative right wing and the right wing media”.
Introducing the new measures, Lord McNally said community orders could be effective at tackling reoffending and pointed out that around 80% of the sentences handed down by the courts last year were non-custodial.
He told peers: “At present community orders do not always inspire public confidence. Some community orders do not contain an element that the public would consider punitive, demanding or restrictive.
“For example in 2011 around 10% of community orders contained only a supervision requirement, while the percentage of successfully completed orders was still low.
“The Government is determined to increase public confidence that community orders provide a proper sanction to criminal behaviour.
“Only in this way can community sentences be effective in tackling the causes of offending while reassuring victims and communities that justice has been done.”
Lord Rosser said two-thirds of community sentences already had a punitive element and questioned whether the Government believed the courts were making the wrong decision in the other third of cases.
“The Government say they do not want to tie the hands of the courts, but clearly though, at the very least they want to give the appearance of telling the courts that they have got it wrong up to now in their community order sentencing,” Lord Rosser said.
He said Mr Grayling made it clear tougher community sentences should not be used as an alternative to short prison sentences of a few months.
“It would appear that the Government’s proposals will not reduce costs or the prison population, but rather with the emphasis on an extended mandatory requirement would, if actually implemented, increase costs without necessarily impacting positively on reoffending,” he said.
“Is the Government’s real intention to impose tougher sentencing on the courts with community orders with an emphasis on a mandatory requirement on punishment and very little said on rehabilitation, or alternatively is the intention to give the impression that this is the case for the benefit of the Conservative right wing and the right wing media while in reality continuing to leave it to the courts to decide the appropriate balance between punishment and rehabilitation in a community order as they do now?”
Independent crossbencher Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales, warned against “posturing about punishment and undermining the position of the probation service”.
Urging ministers to reconsider their approach, during committee stage debate on the Bill, Lord Ramsbotham said he was “seriously alarmed about the state to which the probation service has been reduced since 1997″.
Former lord chief justice of England and Wales Lord Woolf welcomed provisions on restorative justice but warned that provisions for a punitive element to community orders would cause “huge difficulties” for sentencing.
“I regard it as being – I’m sure this is not intended – offensive to the judiciary, who strive to ensure that each person that has to be dealt with is sentenced to the appropriate sentence.”
The independent crossbencher said it must be “unjust” for a judge to impose something that “he or she doesn’t think is the appropriate form of punishment”.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, a retired senior judge and independent crossbencher, expressed “alarm” about the proposals for a “punitive element” in community sentences in all but exceptional circumstances.
She said: “There will be many circumstances which are not exceptional where it would be unjust or inappropriate to make an order that was seen as a requirement of punishment.”
Labour former Home Secretary Lord Reid of Cardowan said the Government had taken a “blunt and crude” instrument to reassure the public about the effectiveness of community sentences.
He said the policy was a “gratuitous attempt to play to the gallery” and said the problem was not the weakness of community sentences but the public perception of them.
“We need to do more to illustrate to local communities the effect of what is being done for their good as recompense and part of rehabilitation,” he added.
Lord McNally later introduced amendments to the Bill aimed to help prosecutors combat fraud, money laundering and bribery.
Under the new system of deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), companies would pay financial penalties, make amends to victims and take steps to stop behaving in the same way in the future.
If they fail to stick to the agreement the company could then be prosecuted for the original offence.
“DPAs will enable more organisations involved in wrongdoing to be brought to justice and secure better outcomes for victims,” Lord McNally said.
“Last year alone fraud cost its victims and the taxpayer an estimated £73 billion – this is unacceptable. More needs to be done to hold organisations involved in wrongdoing to account.”
For Labour, Lord Beecham said the Government would have to convince the public that under the new system companies would not be “let off lightly”.
Lord Woolf welcomed the proposed change as a “very valuable step” and Labour former attorney general Lord Goldsmith said he was in favour of the them “broadly speaking”.
But Liberal Democrat Lord Phillips of Sudbury, a lawyer, said the measure was “fundamentally unacceptable”.
He told peers: “This is plea bargaining, this is breaking the rule of equality before the law because it places huge, powerful, sophisticated companies engaged in pre-meditated and long-term fraud in a different position from a man or woman had up before the local magistrates for shop lifting, which is another form of economic crime.
“I really do believe that we are driving a coach and horses through the ancient traditions of this country by giving privilege, because that’s what it boils down to, to the already rich and powerful.”
Lord McNally, however, denied the Government’s move was not the start of the “slippery slope to plea bargaining”.
Committee stage was later concluded, although unusually the Bill will be given a second committee stage to allow peers to discuss further the amendments introduced today.
Kenneth Clarke’s plans to toughen up community orders by tracking offenders with high-tech ankle tags and ensuring every sentence is a punishment could increase reoffending, the Government’s own impact assessment showed today.
The Ministry of Justice’s initial assessment found the proposals for new intensive community punishments could increase reoffending if the essential new punitive element forces out rehabilitation requirements.
Campaigners also warned that while “tough-sounding policies and Big Brother electronics will grab headlines”, there is also the “risk that politicians will confuse toughness with effectiveness”.
The warnings came as the Justice Secretary outlined plans which could see every community sentence having a sanction aimed primarily at punishment, curfews backed by electronic monitoring, or a fine.
But the MoJ’s impact assessment said: “Given a limit on the overall level of resources available for probation services, and the need for sentences to remain proportionate to the seriousness of the offending, delivering top end community orders may cause a number of primarily rehabilitative requirements to be substituted for primarily punitive ones.
“Evidence is unclear on the effectiveness of individual community order requirements in reducing re-offending, ie. some requirements may be more effective at reducing re-offending than others.
“For offenders who receive intensive community punishment, there is a risk that re-offending rates may be higher than other community orders if some of the rehabilitative requirements are replaced.”
But it added that the tough new sentences may also lead to “some intangible benefits arising from a greater level of public confidence in the criminal justice system, and from justice being seen to be done”.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “When it comes to law and order, there is always a risk that politicians will confuse toughness with effectiveness.
“Tough-sounding policies and Big Brother electronics will grab headlines but, if you’re serious about getting people to behave responsibly and determined to cut crime even further, then there’s no substitute for intensive supervision of offenders by well-trained professionals, and restorative justice for victims.”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan added: “This Tory led-Government’s whole criminal justice strategy is built on an overriding objective to reduce prison numbers in order to fill the black hole in the budget, and these proposals appear part of this obsession.
“Community sentences should be about effectively punishing and reforming appropriate offenders.
“But managing criminals in the community is not the appropriate option for the most serious and violent offenders, and we will oppose any moves that would lead to this.
“These changes could lead to more breaches, and thus more cost as offenders are sent back to prison.”
The probation union Napo also warned that tougher community sentences would only lead to a higher proportion of offenders failing to meet the requirements.
Harry Fletcher, the union’s assistant general secretary, added there was also “no evidence that GPS satellite tracking will reduce crime or save costs”.
Under the proposals, new GPS tags could be used to track an offender’s whereabouts in a bid to reduce reoffending and act as a deterrent from further offending.
But new laws would be needed first, and the Government would need to consider the civil liberties implications and put appropriate safeguards in place, the consultation document added.
The plans could also see offenders facing driving bans and being stopped from socialising in evenings and travelling abroad under the plans designed to convince the public community sentences can be a “better deal for victims” and are not simply a “soft option”.
And fines should not be reserved for the lowest level of offenders, the consultation document said.
“In the right circumstances, a heavy fine can be just as effective a punishment as a community order.”
A new system of fines could also be brought in to tackle offenders who breach the terms of their sentence.
Working in a similar way to fixed penalty notices, the proposals would “create a new option for offender managers, of giving a financial penalty, without returning to court”.
The proposals also include changes to make it easier for courts to strip criminals of the proceeds of crime even if they are of relatively low value – such as a wide-screen TV – in the same way they are already able to seize luxury items such as sports cars and yachts.
Mr Clarke said there was “an urgent need to reform our criminal justice system in order to improve public safety”, which was paramount.
Paul McDowell, chief executive of the crime reduction charity Nacro, urged the Government to “retain a focus on the need to balance punishment, rehabilitation and reparation, so that reoffending can be reduced”.
“A renewed emphasis on community sentences will reduce crime and reoffending,” he said.
“However, community sentences are most successful when the root causes of offending are addressed, and behaviours and attitudes changed.”
He went on: “The new proposals for an Intensive Community Punishment build on the progress made in recent years and have the potential to be a valuable alternative to a short term prison sentence.
“But we have to make sure that we get this right.
“Community sentences need investment to achieve their maximum potential and need to give the public real confidence that they are rigorous, demanding and effective.
“They must balance punishment and rehabilitation as well as provide offenders with the opportunity to repair the damage caused by crime, make amends to the wider community and, where possible, directly to the victim.”
Roma Hooper, director of the Make Justice Work campaign group, said reparation “must be a central part of an intensive community sentence and offenders who breach the conditions of their order must face a firm and swift response”.
Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, said community sentences could be more effective than short jail terms and it is a mistake to assume victims want every offender to go to prison.
“What they do want is well-enforced sentences backed up with effective rehabilitation,” he said.
An MoJ spokeswoman added: “We are clear we want to tackle reoffending and create fewer victims of crime, today’s proposals should do just that.”