Frances Crook: When prison fails, community sentencing can work

Community sentencing is a vital part of our justice system, yet never attracts the headlines it deserves. The only time the public ever hear about community sentences is when things go wrong. "Young man does unpaid work in community and a course in anger management, and goes on to live law-abiding life" is not a news story. "Young man does unpaid work in community, absconds with van and robs bank" is. Yet the vast majority of the 190,000-plus community sentences handed down each year are successful. Reoffending by those on community sentences has declined 13 per cent over the last five years. That means thousands of potential victims of crime have been spared.

Community sentences seek to challenge and change people for the better. By contrast, our overcrowded prisons fail to offer lasting solutions to crime. Spending all day lounging on a cell bunk, particularly for those on short sentences, is the real 'soft' option. For too many people, the only activities available in prison involve criminal gangs and hard-drug use. It should be no surprise that over two thirds of those leaving custody go on to reoffend, rising to over three quarters among under-18s.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has been looking at the excellent work being done in schemes that form part of a community sentence. Examples include Newham's Y-Pac (or Young People Affected by Crime and Confidence) project.

This early intervention scheme seeks to encourage self-confidence, enhance communication skills and teach ways to minimise and resolve conflict. When we visited, of the 306 young people Y-Pac had worked with following a reprimand, warning or referral order, 76% had not reoffended.

A plethora of other programmes is available. That range, which recognises thevariety and complexity of offending behaviour, is a major reason community sentencing functions better than the 'one size fits all' solution of custody.

Recently, government ministers have begun to take community sentencing more seriously, as the prison population hits ever higher levels. But more should be done to increase public confidence in the effectiveness of community-based solutions to crime.

The local emphasis of community sentencing must bereinforced, and it should be recognised that the key to tackling crime doesn't lie just with the police.

A revitalised probation service could forge strong links with the private and voluntary sectors, as well as other publicservices covering areas such as health and education. A truly concerted approach would tackle the underlying causes of crime and make for the safer society that we all want to see.

Frances Crook is director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which publishes a new handbook on community sentencing today