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Community Sentences

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2005

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2.46 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to reduce the prison population through increased use of community sentences; and whether they propose to make any changes to the structure of such sentences.

My Lords, we believe that prison should be reserved for serious, dangerous and seriously persistent offenders, and that less serious, non-dangerous offenders can be more effectively dealt with through community sentences rather than short-term imprisonment.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 changes the structure of community sentences by providing a single order made up of one or more requirements. This allows the court greater flexibility in tailoring the sentence to the offence and the offender in each case.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she accept that although an increase in properly designed community sentences may reduce costs, crime and recidivism, such improvements will not occur, first, if the probation service remains shortchanged—just now there is a lack of 1,100 probation officers—and, secondly, unless there is a far greater allocation of resources than is currently proposed for measures to help to prevent young adults offending in the first place?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that it is very important that the probation service is properly resourced. It has a very important role to play. Since 1997, spending on prisons has increased in real terms by 30 per cent and spending on probation by 46 per cent. However, there has been a significant increase in sentence severity despite those changes. So we are making a real commitment to resource the probation service to enable it to do the job which it is more than fitted to do.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the decline in women prisoners in England and Wales by 160 for the year ended 14 January was due to an increase in community sentences? Will the Government encourage the greater use of community sentences for women in future?

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend on the need to look at increasing the use of non-custodial sentences for women where appropriate. We do of course welcome the reduction. It is difficult to ascribe such changes in the figures to one particular factor. It would appear that the decrease in the number of female prisoners for the year ending in January is largely the result of the decrease in the remand population. However, there was also a 6 per cent reduction in the size of the shorter sentence prison population and there are indications of a welcome increase in the number of women being given community sentences during the 12 months to September 2004. So I very much welcome the import of my noble friend's question.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that recent research studies indicate that curfew orders have not been effective and that people who receive custodial sentences reoffend within two years? Does she consider that the resources given to the probation service are inadequate, in the sense that in some parts of London the probation service is almost at breaking point? Does she therefore consider that to improve non-custodial alternatives it is necessary to put much more resource into the probation service?

My Lords, as I have already made clear, the Government have already made a significant increase—a 46 per cent increase—in spending on probation. We absolutely accept that those resources are needed, and they are now being put in place. The number of new probation officers has grown significantly and the Government will continue to meet that commitment. Curfew orders must be seen against the whole panoply of orders that join together to give us effective sentences and they have an effective part to play in proper control and sentencing.

My Lords, do the Government accept that the reduction in the discretion of the judge to imprison or not and the imposition on the judiciary of minimum sentences tends to add to the population in prison?

My Lords, I do not accept the fundamental precept on which the question is based. As I said to the noble and learned Lord during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and other Acts, the discretion of the judge remains. Of course there is a clear framework and standards, but it remains within his remit for the judge in any given case to come to a decision about how to do justice in that case, as it properly should. The noble and learned Lord will know that minimum sentences have been used very sparingly and, we would say, proportionately.

My Lords, is it the Minister's view, as it is the view of most people engaged in prison reform work, that it is almost always—if not always—the case that far more can be accomplished to rehabilitate an offender by the use of a community service order over a long period than by custody over a short period, which simply produces disruption and instability in the Prison Service and prevents it doing the work that it is best equipped to do?

My Lords, we have clearly set out our view that community sentences should be used for non-dangerous, non-violent offenders where that would be most effective. I hope that noble Lords will remember that the menu of orders presented in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 takes us from conditional cautioning, before a person is brought to court, right the way through to custody minus, which comprises all those things that fall short of imprisonment. We think that we now have the appropriate menu from which the judge can choose both to punish and, we hope, to enhance rehabilitation and reduce the level of recidivism.

My Lords, given the shortage of placements for community service orders, although one applauds the way in which they are being rolled out, to what extent is the voluntary sector being used? Could we make greater use of the voluntary sector for that purpose?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, we are working through the local criminal justice boards creatively to consider local opportunities, including volunteering, to see what sort of things we can encourage community service offenders to do in the community that are visible and will clearly demonstrate that they are paying back to the community in the proper way. We are vigorously pursuing that.