The Big Question: What are the alternatives to prison, and do they work?

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The Independent Online

Why is sentencing in the news?

The prison population in England and Wales reached an all-time high this week of 79,843 - just 125 places short of capacity. The Government's response was to make available up to 500 more places in police cells. John Reid, the Home Secretary, also announced that prisoners from outside the European Economic Area will be offered packages worth up to £2,500 to leave Britain. But penal reformers argue that a greater use of community sentences is the best way to tackle prison overcrowding.

Is prison working?

We simply don't know. On the face of it the bare statistics make encouraging reading. Between 1993 and 2003, the prison population rose by nearly 30,000, from 44,500 to around to 73,600. At the same time figures from the British Crime Survey showed that reported crime fell from 18.5 million to 11.7 million. But there is plenty of evidence to show that economic conditions, rather than penal policy, are more important than prison when looking for influences on crime rates.

And of greater concern to those working with offenders is the lack of investigation into the long-term implications of a rising prison population. A key statistic is the reconviction rate. The most recent Home Office figures show that 79 per cent of offenders sentenced for theft will re-offend with two years of their release.

In America, where tough penal policy programmes have been allowed to run their course, some states are reporting dramatic rises in crime rates and recidivism. Criminal justice reformers in this country fear we may be on the brink of a similar crime wave by creating a new generation of career criminal.

What are the alternatives?

Government criminal justice reforms have widened the scope for alternative sentencing while putting greater pressure on the courts to make greater use of prison. This has sent mixed messages to the judges. It is now much more difficult to say what represents the deterrent, punitive and retributive elements of the sentence.

But if the offence is not serious enough to warrant an immediate custodial sentence, a court can now deal with an offender in a variety of ways. In the past 10 years, the Crown Courts have been imposing more prison sentences while using fewer community orders. Magistrates' courts have increased the use of community sentences.

What is community sentencing?

This allows offenders to undertake rehabilitative programmes and work in the community while under the supervision of the probation service. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 brought into force from April 2005 the "generic community sentence", also known as the community order. This allows judges and magistrates to combine a variety of orders and tailor the sentence to fit the needs of the offender. Many of these will have an educational or skills base element to them.

One of the most imaginative alternatives to custody is the new restorative justice order being piloted in the Thames Valley. In many cases the victim just wants to talk or to hear the offender say they are sorry. A recent study found that victims who take part in this process report very high levels of satisfaction and very low levels of reconviction.

Do non-custodial sentences work?

Community sentences help low-risk offenders to rehabilitate themselves more effectively than a short spell in prison. Research shows that the "short, sharp shock" popularly associated with reducing re-offending rates does not work. Reconviction rates for those serving community sentences are 14 per cent lower than for those serving time in jail, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.

"For the majority of non-dangerous offenders, community sentences are more likely to reduce the seriousness and frequency of re-offending. They help a person to take responsibility for their actions and put something back into the community, rather than sitting out their time lying on a prison bunk," says Frances Crook, director of the Howard League.

Aren't these just soft options?

Not really. An offender will be subject to strict conditions. A breach of a community sentence can trigger an instant prison sentence. Many offenders given a community sentence must also abide by strict curfews or prohibitions on who they can meet or what they can do. Offenders under the age of 25 may be required to attend a centre at a specified time for between 12 and 36 hours, over the course of their sentence. Those subject to drug rehabilitation orders face random testing for up to three years.

What do the judiciary think?

Senior judges have consistently argued that properly funded community sentences are preferable to prison for many types of offences. But the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, has gone one step further. Last month, posing as a lawyer convicted of drink-driving, the country's most senior judge worked a day of community service to see how it could be used to ease prison overcrowding.

After his experience doing a day's hard labour in a Thames Valley community, he said: "The idea that using alternatives to custody is being soft is wrong. The penal element of community punishment was not that the work was particularly hard, but the sacrifice of free time and the need for self-discipline. Having to get out of bed early in the morning was punishment for some. The self-discipline required could create self-respect, and quite often at the end of their time offenders volunteer to continue or seek similar paid work."

How can the public trust alternative sentences?

The public perception is that too many criminals are playing the system by turning up for a short spell of gardening or painting duty and then returning to a life of crime. Some victims' groups and police forces would like to introduce an element of naming and shaming in the community sentence. One suggestion is that convicts would have to wear brightly coloured community service uniforms. Others want offenders to be prominently named in the media or come before the council to apologise for their sins.

Does prison cut crime?

Yes...

* Statistics show that the more people are in custody, the fewer crimes are committed

* A greater use of prison ensures that criminals will take notice of the maxim, crime doesn't pay

* Prison is the best way to satisfy a community's natural wish for retribution

No...

* Rehabilitation is best achieved in the community. Community sentences can cut crime by 14 per cent, and in 2004 had a success rate of 61 per cent

* We can't afford it. The cost of a year in a young offenders' institution is twice as high as the annual fees for Eton

* Prison only creates better criminals