Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Community penalties 'laughed at'

A prisoner being led down a corridor in a young offenders' insitute
Offenders who breach suspended sentences "should be jailed"

The credibility of community sentences is at stake because offenders who breach the orders are not dealt with firmly enough, a study says.

Experts from King's College London examined Community Orders and Suspended Sentence Orders, which were introduced in England and Wales four years ago.

They require offenders to do unpaid work or undergo rehabilitation.

But a probation officer interviewed for the study said those under the orders left court "laughing their heads off".

Offenders who were interviewed said they felt "relieved" when they were given an order instead of a jail sentence.

'Wrong message'

The orders were introduced in April 2005 to try to cut down on the number of people serving short prison sentences while still being seen to be tough on crime.

But their effectiveness has been called into question in the report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College.

I know prisons are full, but they're full with the wrong people
Probation officer

Its authors, George Mair and Helen Mills, interviewed 25 probation officers and 16 offenders, who were offered 20 vouchers to take part, between May and September last year.

One probation officer said breaches were not dealt with seriously enough and "that gives completely the wrong message.

"You go to court for a breach and you don't get sent to prison, you go back on the van next week and all your mates tell everybody else about it. It doesn't have the deterrent effect that it's meant to have."

The most commonly suggested improvement to SSOs was that offenders who breached them should be sent to prison.

One officer said: "I know prisons are full, but they're full with the wrong people. We need to send out the message that if you've got a suspended sentence and you breach it, you go to prison."

'Explosive'

Another said it seemed ridiculous "to call something a Suspended Sentence Order when actually it isn't suspended because you can have two or three chances."

The report describes the growth of SSOs as "explosive" with more than 20 times as many being given out in the second quarter of 2008 compared to the same period in 2005.

A total of 484 were issued then compared to just under 12,000 over the same period three years later. In contrast 9,547 Community Orders (CO) were given out, compared to 33,672 in the second quarter of 2008.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve described the report as "a damning indictment of the government's approach to criminal justice".

He said: "Too many laws, not enough prison places and community sentences that are laughed off by offenders.

"Community sentences have been relied upon to divert offenders from prison. However, without putting in place the supervision required, offenders don't get the rehabilitation they need and the public is not properly protected."

A bit like a guardian angel
An offender describes the role of probation officers

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London, said as the rise in prison numbers coincided with increased use of community sentences, there was little evidence to suggest the latter was a solution to the former.

He also said there was some confusion over non-custodial sentences, as on the one hand there are community orders, which are not an alternative to custody, and suspended sentencing orders which are.

Mr Garside said the government had introduced a raft of new sentencing rules and that it was up to them to take the lead in how these are put into practice.

He told the BBC: "There is some evidence to suggest that some magistrates are confused about the different types of sentence and how they should be used.

Orders breached

"Magistrates cop a lot of flak for imposing the wrong sentence, but at the end of the day they can only operate within the framework set by the government."

Offenders who were interviewed reported a good relationship with probation officers with one describing them as like a "police officer, Jobcentre worker and social worker" rolled into one. Another said their role was "a bit like a guardian angel".

Their perception of the consequences of breaching an order differed from the probation officers' views. One said: "It's strict [the order] ain't it? It's strict, I have to see him [probation officer]. And if I break it I know what's going to happen, straight back inside."

Another added: "I think you get three breaches, three strikes I say and then you're out. Three strikes and you're in jail."

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

The number of offenders who breach the orders is dropping although around two fifths still come to an end because they have been broken.

Judges can impose a number of measures when issuing the sentences including drug, alcohol or mental health treatment, a curfew or order unpaid work.

A community order can last anywhere between 12 hours and three years. If breached, the courts can either make the order more onerous or completely revoke it and grant a new one, which could involve a prison sentence.

A suspended sentence carries with it the threat of an actual prison sentence. It is served in the community unless it is breached, in which case the offender can be sent to prison "unless there are strong reasons for not doing so".

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