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A Review Of The Evidence In Favour Of Non-Custodial Sentences

In an earlier post on this site (August 3rd 2006) which looked at the effectiveness of prison I concluded by promising to review what evidence I could find in support of non-custodial sentences as better ways to tackle crime and criminality. This article details the results of my initial investigations.

Let me make one point clear before I start. This investigation is not intended to be a hatchet job on community initiatives. Many different non-custodial projects exist, and one would be crazy to decry them all from a “prison works and is the only option” ideological viewpoint. In this investigation I am looking for evidence for the effectiveness of non-custodial measures to reduce crime, and any evidence in support of this will be presented.

A good starting point one might imagine for definitive proof that “Prison doesn’t work” should be the Howard League for Prison Reform which was suggested to me by a Guardian-online article published on August 17th this year entitled, “Prison isn’t working” by Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League. (link) In the article, non-custodial government schemes which had been awarded the Howard League's Community Programmes Award for outstanding success in the field of non-custodial initiatives were referenced. Surely, if definitive proof that prison doesn’t work is to be found, it is to be found in these award winning government initiatives.

Before I present the findings of my investigation of the Community Programmes Award scheme winners, I should perhaps first review the parent article submitted by Frances Crook.

“Prison isn’t working” by Frances Crook

Ms Crook starts by posing a key question:
“The central problem is the question: what is prison for?”

We all know that prison can serve several functions including punishment, revenge, protection of society from crime and rehabilitation. Ms Crook makes it clear in her following sentence that she wishes to focus on only one role for prison, rehabilitation, and she then wastes no time in informing us that prison cannot fulfil a rehabilitive role:

“The best analogy is to liken the penal system to the health service. Prisons, like hospitals, are the acute end of a service. Prisons alone cannot make a society safer, just as hospitals alone do not make a nation healthier; both have a place in a wider public service. Two thirds of released prisoners will re-offend. So prison should be used sparingly and only for public protection, because if used profligately it generates more crime rather than reducing it.”

There you have it. The analogy between prison and the NHS demonstrates that both are seen as services for innocent “victims”. Victims of disease and illness on the one hand, and victims of society on the other. In Ms Crooks universe, the only victims of crime are the criminals. There is no logic here at all. The innocent victims of crime, and the general public as a whole barely enter into the equation.

“Public safety requires community sentences so that people can make amends and help to heal the harm done by crime. Public safety requires the resources currently disappearing into the black hole of the prison system to be diverted to crime prevention and effective community sentences that change people's lives and engage with victims.”

In what specific ways do community sentences encourage criminals to “make amends”, “heal the harm done by their crimes”, and “change people’s lives.” Furthermore, what are the criteria against which an “Effective community sentence” is judged, and who decides if they have been met? Again, we are not given any more information, just a tantalising suggestion of what might happen in Ms Crook’s ideal world.

We have been given no more than a string of assertions backed up with no evidence. For the purpose of my investigation, Ms Crooks’ article up to this point is useless.

We are then introduced to the proof, or at least what passes for proof in the world of prison reform. References to established, award winning schemes.

“One example of great work done in the community is the victim-offender mediation service called Remedi in South Yorkshire. It was a winner of the Howard League's Community Programmes Award last year. The project uses mediation to work with victims and offenders to enable a greater understanding of the consequences of their actions and aid re-integration into the community and it changes people's lives.

But we don't hear home secretaries talking about these achievements and successes.”

The rest of Ms Crooks article consists of a detailed attack against each successive Labour Home Secretary since 1997 for not implementing her favoured policies which is of no relevence to this investigation so I won't discuss it further.

For those seeking proof there is nothing whatsoever offered by Ms Crook from the beginning to the end of her article.

This is bad news for our quest. We must move on.

The Howard League For Prison Reform

My next step was to review the Howard League's Community Programmes Award scheme mentioned by Frances Crook. I decided to restrict my investigation to the first year’s awards from 2005, schemes which presumably have been around long enough to have generated clear evidence of their successes. Of these, I restricted my choice for further investigation to those given prominent reviews on the Howard League website (link) as these would presumably have been the most successful schemes, and one might expect the reviews to give some supportive evidence.

Four “winners” were selected by this route:

1. Staffordshire Intensive Floating Support Scheme for High Risk Offenders (IFSS)
2. Gloucestershire Re-integration Service
3. Suffolk Reparation and Mediation Service, (SRAMS) Crime Concern
4. REFORD Programme - Birmingham Youth Offending Team

There is insufficient space here to cover the information provided for each of these schemes on the Howard League website, and anyone wishing to see this information should follow the above link. Suffice it to say, none of the lengthy write-ups given by the Howard League presented any data or facts whatsoever to demonstrate the effectiveness of these programmes. All were written in the same glowing prose style, a bit like advertisements for consumer products. They had “aims”, deliverables”, and “provisions.” They “responded to individual circumstances”, “reinforced identities”, and “provided enhanced support” etc.

Precisely what they did, and how effectively they did it, was left largely a mystery.

Still no evidence, but my quest was not over yet. Time to get the proof I was seeking from those directly running these schemes.

Individual Scheme Directors/Administrators

The Howard League website included a contact e-mail address for the directors or administrators for each of the award winning schemes.

A week ago I sent the following e-mail to each scheme contact name:

Dear Ms X
I am currently researching alternatives to prison and came across the XXX scheme which is mentioned on the Howard League For Prison Reform website as a 2005 Community Awards winner.
I would like to learn more about this scheme, particularly with respect to any measures which demonstrate its success. Can you please let me know what information is available in the public domain that I could access, either on the web or in the published literature that might give me the information that I am seeking.

Yours Sincerely
John East

The following email replies were received:

1. Staffordshire Intensive Floating Support Scheme for High Risk Offenders (IFSS)

Staffordshire Probation Service were very helpful, supplying me the day following my enquiry with an independent assessment of their IFSS scheme. A summary of this report, written by Colin A. Reed B.A., Ph.D., C.Psychol, is given below:

“. The IFSS scheme provides support to high risk offenders, especially sex offenders, plus a degree of surveillance. It does this through two Public Protection Liaison Officers (PPLOs), one covering the north of the area and the other covering the south. They work in close partnership with other organisations, especially Probation and the Police.

The main aims of the Scheme are to help offenders maintain accommodation in the community through the provision of support and, through this and through feedback from surveillance, to help prevent and/or delay re-offending. This support and surveillance is provided through regular visits in the offender’s own home by the PPLOs, making links with other agencies depending on the offender’s needs, and providing reports on each visit to the relevant case manager in Probation or the Police. Most of the offenders will be on some form of licence but the Scheme will also take ‘non statutory’ cases where this is felt to be appropriate.

The initial evaluation of the Scheme was begun when the Scheme had been operating for around 15 months and had accepted just over 40 offenders in total for support. The evaluation (includes) a statistical analysis of client data.”

At long last, a reference to statistical data! Was my search almost over? The report went on to say:

“…….. what information there is (both statistical and from the views of partner organisations) supports the view that the Scheme is helping offenders to retain stable accommodation and helping to avoid them re-offending.”

……and that was it. The statistics “support the view that….” No mention of re-offending rates, no follow up studies, no comparison with comparable offenders not on this scheme.

In short – no evidence.

Just the usual congratulatory pats on the back, and references to scheme managers, offenders, related public services and the police telling us how good the scheme is, and a recommendation that the scheme should be extended.

2. Gloucestershire Re-intergration Service.

“Sadly, Gloucestershire Probation Service decided not to support GRS any longer as it did not deal with "probation core business" - ie meeting targets, so GRS was wound up on 1/4/06.”

Hmm. I wonder if it would have been wound up if it had been successful? I would imagine not.

3. Suffolk Reparation and Mediation Service, (SRAMS) Crime Concern
4. REFORD Programme - Birmingham Youth Offending Team

My email to the managers of these two schemes were ignored.


Of the four award winning schemes, one has been scrapped, one may or may not be a success (of this scheme’s supporters including the Howard League, the scheme’s management and an independent assessor, no one is prepared to offer any data against which it can be judged), and two have ignored my enquiries. In the case of the schemes whose managers did not reply to my email, I strongly suspect that if there had been any proof of success not only would it have been provided to me, but we would already have seen it championed by the BBC and emblazoned across the front page of the Guardian.

I can’t say that I am surprised by the total absence of anything resembling a scientific assessment of these non-custodial initiatives, but I can say that I’m bitterly disappointed by the general assumption that seems to pervade government, social services, prison reformers etc. that hard data and hard headed evaluations are simply not needed.

The official line that Prison doesn’t work and that community sentences are the answer appears to be set in stone. Not because of evidence for or against the two approaches, but just because the social scientists and social services say so.

This situation isn’t good enough.

Stop press (1st October 2006)

A couple of weeks after this article was published I received a reply from the Suffolk Reparation and Mediation Service. I apologise to them for assuming that they had ignored my earlier request for evidence to demonstrate the success of their initiative.

However, I cannot agree with their method of evaluating their scheme. This was the reply I received:

“We undertake exit questionnaires with young people and YOS use questionnaires to gain satisfaction levels.”

I strongly maintain that the success or otherwise of a community initiative is not, and should never be determined by the “satisfaction level” of those youths who have been placed on the scheme, but such is the state of social science these days that this seems to be the only criterion used, or at least in this case it was the only evidence offered to me.


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