Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“Community orders, which are intended to deliver both punishment and rehabilitation, can be a tough option and, in the right circumstances, a real alternative to locking offenders up. But there is a long way to making them as effective as they could be, everywhere in the country.
"It is welcome that the Ministry of Justice has endorsed the findings and conclusions of the January 2008 National Audit Office report. A key task ahead for the Ministry will be to amass badly needed robust, national information on just how good orders are in stopping different types of offender from reoffending. As findings on this emerge from the Ministry’s planned research, they should be used to inform the everyday work of probation officers.
"There is a chronic lack of information about community sentences. It does nothing for confidence in community orders, among both sentencers and the public, if no one knows how many have been completed by offenders. It does not help if the most widely used measure of reoffending, the reconviction rate, does not include all offences committed in the two-year monitoring period. And confidence is undermined by the fact that offenders are treated differently in different local probation areas."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 48th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry), examined increasing the effectiveness of community orders; building the confidence of both the court and the community in community orders; improving the funding formula; and tightening adherence to the requirements of orders through compliance and enforcement procedures.
Sentences served in the community offer the courts a credible alternative to custody, taking account of the offence committed, the risk posed by the offender and their needs. Since their introduction under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, community orders have offered courts the ability to impose a range of 12 possible ‘requirements’, including accredited programmes (such as anger management courses or alcohol and drug rehabilitation), unpaid work in the community and supervision by the National Probation Service.
There is little information available nationally on the effectiveness of community orders. On the key measure of reconviction, figures from the Ministry of Justice responsible for the National Offender Management Service and the National Probation Service, showed that for those sentenced to community orders, their actual reconviction rate was lower than those sentenced to custodial sentences for similar offences (3.6% below predicted rates as opposed to 3.1% below—a statistically significant difference).
The Ministry does not have basic information on the effectiveness of community orders such as national data on whether offenders have completed their community orders, nor on why offenders have failed to complete them. The National Probation Service has set national standards for absences from, or breaches of, community orders, but these are applied inconsistently across the 42 local Probation Areas. There are marked differences between Probation Areas in their interpretation of acceptable and unacceptable reasons for an offender being absent. Delays in starting programmes impact adversely on an offender’s ability to complete an order.
A key feature of the community order is that courts should be able to sentence offenders to requirements that address their underlying problems, such as alcohol or drug treatment programmes. However, sentencing options for courts are sometimes limited, as not all requirements are available in all local areas. The use of requirements relating to alcohol or drug misuse is low. Despite alcohol misuse being shown to cause a quarter of offenders to commit offences, only 2% were given an alcohol treatment requirement.
The Ministry’s current method of funding Probation Areas is unsatisfactory and slow to respond to changes in demand from the courts. There is a need for a more flexible system of allocating funding and moving resources between Areas in accordance with need.