The prison population in England and Wales exceeded its current ‘usable operational capacity’ of just under 82,000 in February 2008. Choose one of the following measures and write a briefing paper for the government assessing its potential contribution to the current prison numbers problem

Greater use of community punishments

Figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform state that there are currently over 80,000 people in prison in England and Wales today. The prison population has been rising steadily since 1993, increasing from 42,000 to today’s unprecedented levels. England and Wales have the highest number of people in prison within Western Europe, with 148 per 100,000 of the population being imprisoned in 2006 (Walmsley 2006). The fact that prisons are heavily overcrowded has meant that several debilitating factors have occurred, such as two people being held in a cell which is designed for one, leading to them having to use unscreened toilets, which in turn means that they lose even the most basic of human dignity.

Prisoners are also being kept miles from their homes, with 37,000 prisoners being held over 50 miles from home. This therefore costs a great deal in transportation costs along with jeopardising family relationships, and the chances of successful re-integration back into the community on release, which are two of the most important factors in reducing reoffending. The Howard League for Penal Reform (2008:1) sums this up by stating that that “prison is an expensive failure, which has no impact on crime levels or the fear of crime.” One way in which prison numbers could be dramatically cut, could be to utilise community punishments more often when sanctioning offenders.

Community punishments can take on many forms, and the general principles applying to all community penalties are found in Section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. These principles state that a ‘community order’ means any of the following orders, namely: a probation order, a community service order, a combination order, a curfew order, a supervision order, and an attendance centre order. Focusing on these forms of punishment could help keep the prison population at a minimum.

If prison was successful at preventing reoffending the high numbers incarcerated may be justified. However, research studies have shown that reoffending rates for prisoners after release from prison is high. For example, a Home Office study carried out by Cunliffe and Shepherd (2007) found that 64.8 per cent of all those released from prison reoffended within two years, with 77.8 per cent of males aged 18- 20 being reconvicted. This is compared to 53.2 per cent of offenders who were reconvicted within two years after being given a community sentence, despite it costing less to give someone a community sentence.

Furthermore, if people are reoffending on release from prison and therefore being reincarcerated, then this means that the prison population will keep on increasing. The use of community punishments could help prevent the prison numbers from increasing, as they have been shown to be more effective than prison sentences in preventing people from reoffending, along with also being a cheaper form of sanction. Figures produced by the Howard League for Penal Reform have shown that it costs 12 times as much to send someone to prison than it does to issue them with a community sentence.

Prisons should always be utilised within our society for the most serious offenders such as murderers and rapists, so as to keep them incarcerated and away from harming society again. However, community sentences are a cheaper and more effective way to punish offenders. Replacing 20,000 prison places with alternative sentences would save the taxpayer £690 million, and community sentences reduce offending by 14%. (Howard online).

Research has also shown that the public do not necessarily call for offenders to be sent to prison. For example, an ICM survey for the Ministry of Justice of 1,085 victims of non-violent crime in the UK found that 81 percent of victims would prefer an offender to receive an effective sentence rather than a harsh one with nearly two thirds (63 percent) disagreeing that prison is always the best way to punish someone.

A high majority (94 percent) also stated that the most important thing to them was that the offender did not do it again. This therefore shows that community sentencing could be a good way to cut the imprisonment rate, as the public would not be opposed to using this as a measure.

One factor which needs to be noted when considering the expansion of community penalties to help cut the prison population should be that the alternatives to custody should not lead to ‘net widening’ and ‘mesh thinning’ (Cohen 1985). This is where greater numbers of less serious offenders are brought into the penal net than might have originally been the case, which could concurrently lead to the imposition of more severe sanctions upon them. This would therefore have a negative impact upon the offender, and may in the long run end up in an increase in the prison population, due to the fact that if these offenders reoffend, then they may end up being incarcerated.

Home Office research suggests that 10 per cent of offenders are committing half of all crimes in England and Wales at any point in time (Hone Office 2001). The Carter Report, which was published in 2003, recommended targeted and rigorous sentences, specifying for ‘persistent’ offenders not only greater control and surveillance, but also help to reduce their reoffending. These intensive programmes offer an “imaginative and alternative opportunity for the management of this group of offenders” (Bottoms et al (2004: 268). There are several examples of programmes which have been carried out on prolific and persistent offenders, for example, the Stoke-on-Trent Prolific Offender Project by a research team at Keel University (Worrall et al 2003)

The Prolific Offender Project was established as a partnership between Staffordshire Police and the National Probation Service Staffordshire Area to work intensively with up to 16 prolific offenders at any one time with the primary objective of reducing their offending. An evaluation of this project showed that participants had a significantly lower number of convictions, on average, when participating on the project compared with the comparison group, who remained at large within the community.

However there was no significant difference in the average number of convictions between the groups after the participants left the project. This therefore indicates that that more follow up and support may be needed after completion of projects such as this. If this happened, then less people would be inclined to reoffend, which may therefore lead to a reduction in the prison population, it was also found that the programme had other benefits, such as it keeping them occupied, and built up their confidence in doing everyday things such as finding accommodation, social interaction and paying bills. Therefore it could be recommended that more community programmes could be based around these elements, as these appear to help the offenders’ function in everyday life, which may therefore lead to less recidivism amongst offenders.

One important factor “rarely dealt with” when looking at the community treatment programme is the problem of working with an offender in the community where temptations, including pressure from the environment and peers to resume their former lifestyle.

Community treatment programmes could be located in the community but as far as possible from high crime incidence areas ideally offenders should be removed from their old environment and placed into a new community environment to reduce criminal contact and to develop beneficiary community contacts (Dodge 1979).

Therefore, if community penalties are to be successful in reducing prison overcrowding, it may be an idea to locate them some distance away from the offender’s previous address.

Vass (1990) states that punishment in the community is seen as a means of keeping prison places available for more serious crimes and alleviating overcrowding. It is suggested that punishment administered in the community is also ‘humane punishment’ because it helps offenders to remain in their “natural habitat, community and families”. It helps them to “retain their jobs and teaches them to be self reliant and responsible”.

Through their supervised activities, offenders can contribute to their own well being as well as that of the community. Tonry (2004) states that if a there was a greater use of community punishments, and the prison population was reduced by a third, then the level of crime should actually come down. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, recidivism studies comparing re-offending by people released from prisons or community penalties generally conclude that ex-prisoners do worse and have higher re-offending rates.

However, the Halliday report concluded that “there is currently no discernible difference between conviction rates for custody and for community penalties” (Home Office 2001b:126). Prisons have been criticised as being schools for crime in which offenders become more deeply socialised into criminal values and from which they are released stigmatized as ‘ex cons’. This is why several countries, including Germany have nearly eliminated the use if prison sentences of six months or less.

They are seen as too short to allow rehabilitative programmes to be effective, but long enough for prisoners to lose their jobs, homes and families. So reducing the prison population will not result in more crimes by people who have completed their sentences, and will lessen the criminogenic effect that prison can have upon people.

Reducing the prison population by a third will enable substantial improvements in the quality and availability of treatment programmes within the community. Though substantial evidence has shown that well managed, well targeted programmes can reduce participants’ later offending, sufficient funds are rarely available to allow adequate implementation and to meet the needs of eligible offenders (Gaes et al 1999).

Limited availability, poor targeting and aftercare in drug abuse treatment are commonly recognised to be serious problems. Even a third of the £900 million which would be made available by punishing offenders in the community will go a long way to providing treatment programmes to those offenders which need them, and this in turn will help cur rates of reoffending.

As Tonry (2004:82) states, if treatment programmes can reduce reoffending – and the evidence is that they can- the release in dividend will permit substantial crime prevention gains”. Therefore, if the prison population was reduced, and replaced by punishment in the community, the funds saved by cutting prison numbers could be utilised to help fund more effective programmes within the community.

One of the main reasons for Halliday’s proposal to create a single community punishment order that could encompass any from among a wide range of supervision, treatment, training, work, reparations, residential and other conditions, was that there was a large body of evidence on the effectiveness of treatment programmes in the community. Halliday’s report states that the research literature shows that “some things can work for some people, provided the right programmes are selected and implemented properly” (Home Office 2001b: 7).

Furthermore, “if programmes are developed and applied as intended, and to the maximum extent possible, reconviction rates might be reduced by 5-25 percentage points (i.e., front the present level of 56 per cent to (perhaps) 40 per cent”). Therefore it can be seen that the sentencing framework proposed by Halliday in 2000 presents the argument that a single community punishemt could help reduce reoffending, inturn cuttinf the prison population..

From Rex in Rex and Tonry (2002) –(reform and punishment) reinventing community penalties: the role of communication

Several studies have supported the fact that community punishment can have positive effects upon offenders. For example, Rex (2002) carried out 65 in depth interviews with victims, offenders, magistrates and probation practitioners in which they discussed things such as their understanding of punishment and how community sentences contribute to penal aims. Rex found that community punishment enables offenders to see that they had something to contribute to society, and therefore to gain “grounded increments in self esteem” (Rex 2002), and the offenders questioned within her research described themselves as gaining a sense of achievement through probation as well as community service.

Their experiences partaking in community service or being supervised on a probation order were both seen to have the potential to develop offenders’ awareness of the impact of their behaviour on other people. Rex states that “The reintegrative and rehabilitative possibilities offered by community penalties surely mean that they merit our serious attention in their own right” (2002:139). Therefore, it can be seen that offenders on community punishment schemes can find them rewarding. If this means that they will be less inclined to reoffend then this will mean that community punishments will have made some progress in reducing the prison population within England and Wales.


One major issue which could be addressed when looking at measures to cut the prison population could be to tackle the drug problem amongst offenders. Home Office figures have shown that our prison system contains many drug users, and the numbers are increasing. At the end of October 2007. 15 per cent of males within prison had been convicted of drug offences, and for females the figure stood at 30 per cent, which was by far the largest proportion which women were imprisoned for. However, there are many other offenders who are imprisoned for offences which are linked to drug use, such as shoplifting to fund a drug taking habit.

Burglary, vehicle crime, and prostitution can also be liked to drug taking. Ramsey (2003) states that 55 per cent of prisoners report committing offences connected to drug taking, with the need to access money to buy drugs the most commonly cited factor. Therefore, tackling the drug addiction of offenders could be one major way to dramatically cut the prison population. If these offenders were treated for their drug addiction, then they may not have to commit crime to fund their habit.

Furthermore, this could lead to a reduction in other drug related offences, as the less people taking drugs meant that the supply of drugs will not be as prevalent, leading to further reductions in drug related offences, concurrently leading to a reduction in the prison population. These drug treatment programmes could be carried out in the community, as this would be cheaper, and would not lead to a rise in the prison population

Woodruff et al (2007) carried out research which looked at the economic argument for and against prison sentences and their alternatives. They looked at several meta analyses, which included two studies which looked at the effectiveness of Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Programmes, which had incorporated 768 individuals. The aim of the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Programme is to divert non-violent drug addicted offenders into community based facilities.

The programme utilises intensive and individual group counselling using the “dynamics of communal living to teach positive, personal and social values and behaviour”. Vocational and educational programmes are also integrated into the programme and residents are supervised 24 hours a day and are “subject to in- treatment monitoring” (Woodruff et al (2007: 7). They found that offenders who receive residential drug treatment are 43 per cent less likely to reoffend after completion than comparable offenders receiving prison sentences.

Also, at a cost of £5,299 per offender per year, this is considerably cheaper than prison, and would save the tax payer £88,469 based on the reduced chance of re-offending over an offender’s post-release lifetime, along with cutting the prison population.

From Rumgay in Bottoms on drugs

Recent estimates of expenditure on drugs suggest that Class A drug user may spend up to £20,000 a year on drugs, a considerable proportion of which is raised through illegal activity (Bennett 2000 as cited in Rumgay 2004). “The lifestyles, social networks and psychological distress of substance misusers intensify their chances of involvement in crime (Rumgay 2004: 251).

Also, substantial harms are inflicted on the victims of their anti social and high risk activity, including economic, material, physical and psychological damage. Therefore it is imperative that offenders with drug addictions are helped to desist from taking drugs, as this will cut the numbers of prosecutions per year and thus lead to a reduction in the prison population.

Since the Criminal Justice Act 1991, there have been several alternative types of residential and non-residential treatment requirement available. The government introduced a specific community penalty entitled the Drug Treatment and Testing Order in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which was rolled out nationally in 2000. This order contains a mandate for compulsory drug testing, and direct court oversight of the management of orders and progress of individuals.

One of the most thorough evaluations of the effectiveness of drug treatment undertaken has been the UK National Treatment Outcome Research Study, which followed users for four to five years after their intake into residential and outpatient methadone programmes. The programme found significant reductions in drug use, the high-risk drug behaviours of injecting and equipment sharing, symptoms of psychological distress and criminal activity one year after intake into treatment.

These effects persisted after four or five years (Gossop et al 2003 in Rumgay) “criminality is not generally regarded as a specific treatment target within the therapeutic drug setting” (Rumgay 2004:259), however desistance from substantial criminal activity occurred, apparently as a consequence of the improvements in problematic drug use and/ or psychological health.

Rumgay suggests several crucial issues that need to be considered when developing treatment provision for substance misusing offenders. Fir example, she states that expansions in the accountability of treatment services, and particular forms of outreach, such as arrest referral schemes and prison aftercare may be particularly important in raising offenders’ awareness of and confidence in opportunities for help. She also argues that diverse treatment opportunities are required which include both voluntary and compulsory pathways, rather than being constrained within a limited range of specifically accredited programmes.

Argument for limiting short sentences.

It can also be argued that community punishments could be used in place of short prison sentences. (Wasik 2004:297) in Bottoms et al (2004) has argued that “short sentences are now generally recognised as being largely ineffective”. The government accepted the arguments as to the ineffectiveness of short custodial sentences which were presented to them in 2001 in the Halliday Report. Halliday stated that “one of the most important deficiencies in the present framework is the lack of utility in short prison sentences…. the sentence is used for large numbers of persistent offenders with multiple problems and high risk of reoffending… a more effective recipe for failure could hardly be conceived…” (Halliday 2001, para 3.1).

One way of ensuring that short prison sentences are not unnecessarily used is the new ‘custody plus’ sentence. This is designed so that offenders serve a short period in custody and then go on to have a longer period of structured supervision in the community. Wasik (2004:298) states that what this sentence will do is “take away from the courts power to pass ‘simple’ short terms of imprisonment”.

However, as Wasik asks, given the “restrictive and onerous nature of the community requirements of at least 26 weeks which come with a short custodial term, would not a community sentence with appropriate requirements do the job just as well?” (Wasik 2004:298). This seems like a good argument, as there would be little chance for rehabilitation to take place within prison if the offender only serves a short sentence. It seems more practical for the offender to simply be punished in the community.

Such is the concern over short term sentences and their effect on the rising prison population that in January 2002, Lord Wolf, The Lord Chief Justice, urged magistrates to cut short term jail sentences by half (Deakin and Spencer 2003). Although some people, including judges, believe that harsher penalties have greater deterrence effects than milder ones, there is no evidence that this is true Tonry (2004). In fact, Tonry (2004) states that “every serious review of research in the past quarter century on the deterrent effects of punishment has concluded that there is no evidence to support the belief that incremental differences in punishment have measurable deterrent effects” (2004:81). The Halliday Report(2001:8) states that “It is the prospect of getting caught that has deterrence value, rather than the alterations to the “going rate” for severity of sentences”. Therefore there is no reason to believe that reducing the length of every prison sentence would result in any lesser deterrent effects then retaining them at their current levels.

Women and community punishment

Another way in which community punishments could be utilised to cut the prison population could be to punish more women in the community as opposed to incarcerating them.. When someone is sent to prison, it needs to be taken into account that it may not only be the person who is imprisoned that is affected. If the incarcerated person has a family, it will more than likely have a significant knock on effect on them.

Every year 150,000 children have a parent who is in prison, and 7% of children will see a parent imprisoned during school years. Two thirds of women prisoners are mothers, and the numbers of women in prison has increased significantly over the years. There was a 105% increase in the number of women remanded into custody between 1995 and 2005, from 3,727 to 7,660.

Although most women serve short sentences, with nearly two-thirds (63%) being sentenced to less than six months in custody, the effects on their children can be devastating. At the end of September 2006 the average distance female prisoners were held from their home was 58 miles. This therefore means that it is difficult for their families and children to visit them. According to the Social Exclusion Unit (2002), only half of the women who had lived, or were in contact with, their children prior to imprisonment had received a visit since going to prison.

Also, just 5% of women prisoners’ children remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced. This therefore means that disruption is being caused to a lot of children’s lives as a result of having a parent in prison. HM Prisons Inspectorate has found that 25% of women prisoners had their children’s father or a spouse or partner caring for their children. 25% were cared for by their grandmothers; 29% were cared for by other family members or friends and 12% were in care, with foster parents, or had been adopted. The fact that that 12% of children end up in care, with a foster parent or being adopted as a result of their mother going into prison is quite alarming, as this will be a total upheaval for the child, and may cause the child much distress, such as moving schools or moving away from friends.

Therefore it can be seen that incarcerating people who have children, especially mothers, can have adverse effects on the children involved. Nacro (2000) has found that during their sentence 45% of people lose contact with their families and many separate from their partners. Therefore, it can be argued that a community sentence may be a better punishment to give women, especially those with children, as this would mean that less children would lose contact with their mothers.

The argument that community punishment is a better sanction for women with children is also endorsed by public opinion. Public opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of people believe that women with young children should not be sent to prison for non-violent offences. For example, An ICM public opinion poll, commissioned by SmartJustice in March 2007, found that, of 1,006 respondents, almost three quarters (73%) thought that mothers of young children should not be sent to prison for non-violent crime.

The fact that having a parent in prison may be harmful for their children is supported by findings from the Social Exclusion Unit (2002), which found that nearly a third (30%) of prisoners’ children suffer significant mental health problems, compared with 10% of the general population. Is also found that prisoners’ families, including their children, often experience increased financial, housing, emotional and health problems during a sentence. This again provides a strong argument that community sentences may be better for women, in particular those with children.

From Deakin and Spencer (2003)

A Home Office study found that sentencers were reluctant to impose fines upon female offenders, which resulted in both an increase in the number of acquittals and increases in the number of community penalties imposed (Hedderman and Dowds 1997). However, this practice is now considered patronising and intrusive, and it has resulted in women entering formal criminal justice sanctions at a higher level, leading to possible imprisonment earlier in their careers.

One possible explanation for the use of custody as opposed to community sentences for women could be due to the fact that there is a lack of suitable or practical community sanctions for female offenders (Worrall 1990). Deakin and Spencer (2003:130) have noted that community punishment has been “viewed through a gendered lens”, and Worrall 1990 suggests that it is largely viewed as a young man’s punishment. McIvor (1999) also states that there are other reasons for the under use of community punishment, such as problems with childcare and shortage of female supervisors. However, the issue of childcare would be more of a problem if the child’s mother was incarcerated for a period of weeks or moths, as opposed to a few hours a day which would be the case with a community punishment order.

Deakin and Spencer (2003:130) also state that the statistics in relation to women and crime “do not indicate any seismic shift in women’s offending behaviour, women are not committing crimes of any greater seriousness now than they were a decade ago”. They also state that there should be an “immediate move to reduce the numbers of women in prison and sent to prison” (2003:133). McIvor states that to do this there needs to be diverse and imaginative ways of punishing women in the community, for example, supervision on a voluntary basis and forms of probation intervention that take account of women’s pathways into crime and their needs. These measure could lead to a reduction in the prison population, and help to prevent the devastating effects that incarceration can have upon women’s lives.

Public opinion and community punishment

Several surveys have been carried out into the public opinion in relation to different forms of sentencing. If a form of sanction proves unpopular with the public, then it may have a knock on effect on how many votes a government party receives in a general election. Therefore, community punishments need to be poplar with the public for them to be successful at cutting the prison population.

Hough and Roberts (1998) looked at attitudes to punishments which were attained from the 1996 British Crime Survey. This survey looks at a nationally representative sample of 16,348 respondents, and asks several questions about crime, including their knowledge of crime and sentencing and their views on the best ways to tackle crime.

The findings state that respondents’ attitudes towards greater use of imprisonment were at least “ambivalent” (Hough and Roberts 1998: ix), and there was a wide spread belief that imprisonment can lead to further crime as well as prevent it. It was also found that a greater number of people expressed a preference for tougher community penalties to be utilised to tackle prison overcrowding, with 59 per cent stating this as their preferred method.

This is compared to only 18 per cent of respondents who states that building new prisons is the best method to tackle prison overcrowding. Therefore it can be seen that a nationally representative sample of people believe that community penalties should be the preferred method to tackle prison overcrowding, which may in turn mean that they are more inclined to vote for a political party who states this as one of its policies.

Also, people are inclined to think that crime levels are on the increase when they are actually falling. For example, Mattinson and Mirlees-Black (2000) state that findings from the 1998 British Crime Survey show that although more people were aware in1998 than in 1996 that recorded crime was falling, 59% still thought that it had increased in the previous two years. This could therefore indicate that the general public need educating on the trends in crime, and this may make them more inclined to be less punitive, and want to incarcerate less offenders, which would therefore lead to a decrease in the prison population.

Dispelling myths about public opinion might be most crucial in the area of non custodial sentences (Bottoms et al 2004), and as Flanagan (1996) suggests, ‘perceived public opinion’ is the ‘greatest obstacle’ to the success of community based penalties. And Bottoms et al state that “sentencers are reluctant to utilise community penalties, regardless of their levels of effectiveness, if they assume that the public would disapprove of these options” (2004:84). Therefore, if community sentences are to be a successful measure to cut the prison population, sentencers should be informed that the public do not actually object to the use of community penalties, and in a lot of cases they actually prefer the idea to prison.

Public opinion research shows rather conclusively that although the general public does largely support harsh punishment for serious offenders, but we are also very much in favour of rehabilitation (McCorkle 1993). Therefore it can be argued that rehabilitative programmes should play a large part in community penalties. Along with punishing the offender for the crime they have committed, rehabilitative programmes could also play a part in preventing them from reoffending.