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Non-custodial Sentences: Public Confidence

Volume 835: debated on Monday 22 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the public’s confidence in non-custodial sentences.

My Lords, it is important that the public have confidence in non-custodial sentences. The Government’s response to the Justice Select Committee’s report, Public Opinion and Understanding of Sentencing, was published last Thursday, 18 January. The Government are currently considering the Justice and Home Affairs Committee’s report of 28 December 2023, Cutting Crime: Better Community Sentences, and further note the Sentencing Council’s current consultation on revised guidelines for the imposition of community and custodial sentences.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I look forward to the Government’s response to that committee report, given that a 2019 report by the Sentencing Academy suggested that public attitudes to sentencing are, in part, due to a lack of evidence-based information. Our prisons are overcrowded and, overall, what we are doing is not working to break cycles of reoffending and change the lives of offenders, victims and communities. So what more can the Government do to raise evidence-based awareness of the effectiveness of sentences and, perhaps, share outcomes from the female offender strategy and women’s centres to promote public support for an alternative model for both male and female non-violent offenders?

My Lords, the Government accept that we can do more to increase public understanding of the working of the criminal justice system. We are committed to open justice: broadcasting judges’ sentencing remarks is a notable step forward; the further availability of transcripts of those remarks is another step that we can take. It is also important to publish sentencing and other information in an accessible form, on GOV.UK and on social media. We should be ambitious to improve the data that we already publish on criminal justice statistics. The Sentencing Council website has extensive information on how sentencing works, and a number of other steps can be taken to improve public knowledge of what is happening.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that public support for non-custodial sentences would be improved considerably if the Government took immediate steps to deal with the workforce gap in the Probation Service? Every probation service in the country is undermanned; there is a shortage of 400 officers in London; and 20% of new probation officers leave the service before they finish qualifying.

I agree with the noble Lord that the key to public confidence in community sentences is rigorous offender management. We are investing £155 million a year in the Probation Service, which is in recovery mode. We have over 4,000 new trainees and even in London there has been a 10% increase in recruitment. The Community Payback programme, which is targeted specifically at community sentences, involves a further £93 million, and an increase in staff and resources for that programme.

My Lords, I note my interests in the register. A community sentence that has public and judicial support, particularly for women offenders, is one with a mental health treatment requirement, which is often combined with a drug rehabilitation and alcohol treatment requirement. A national rollout is well under way, but these sentences will be fully successful only if there is increased capacity in each of these services, especially mental health. Will the Minister therefore ensure that there is such capacity across the country to enable the successful completion of these community sentences and to reinforce judicial and public confidence in them?

My Lords, on behalf of the Government, I entirely accept the value of the various outcomes that the noble Lord just mentioned. We should celebrate success stories, particularly in relation to female offenders—mentioned by the right reverend Prelate a moment ago—and youth offenders. As the noble Lord just indicated, there are far more options for community sentences available now than there used to be. There is tagging, alcohol tagging, alcohol treatment and drug treatment. Quite a range of possibilities are therefore open to the court, combined with the national drug strategy being run by the Department of Health to get people off drugs. I cannot promise to ensure increased capacity, but the Government are certainly working to that end.

My Lords, speaking not just from these Benches but as chair of the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee, we found it persuasive that community sentences are followed by much lower rates of reoffending than custody. We know that prisons are “universities of crime”. Should this not be a message that the Government promulgate?

My Lords, the actual message is, in essence, for the Sentencing Council to transmit. The Government and Parliament set the framework, the Sentencing Council sets the guidelines, and our independent judges impose the sentences. The Sentencing Council’s present guidelines emphasise that community orders can be highly positive, last longer than short custodial sentences and involve important restrictions on day-to-day liberty; and that breaching them can result in significant adverse consequences. We must entirely combat the idea that community sentences are a soft option, and that is the Government’s position.

My Lords, the need to weigh public confidence against improving rehabilitation, reducing costs and the need for prison places seems to be ignored when sentencing for serious and violent crime. The trend here is for ever longer custodial sentences. People convicted of murder now spend 60% longer in prison, on average, than in 2001. No balancing act is being attempted, and no rehabilitation. Justice cannot be driven by vengeance, so why are the Government arguing for ever longer sentences?

My Lords, I am not aware that the Government are arguing for ever longer sentences. On the contrary, the sentencing Bill that your Lordships will shortly consider has a presumption to avoid prison sentences in certain circumstances—particularly short sentences. As far as murder is concerned, the statutory sentence is life imprisonment. That is not a matter for the Government. The time one serves as a sentence for murder is a matter for the Sentencing Council guidelines. I think I would accept—as the Justice Committee accepted—that it is true that public opinion in recent years seems to have moved towards heavier sentences for serious crime. But I do not accept that, as my noble friend suggests, that overrides rehabilitation in all circumstances.

My Lords, pre-sentence reports are vital to improving the effectiveness of community sentences. They allow courts to tailor sentences, and give sentencers confidence that the interventions they are recommending are not only suitable but available in their area. Worryingly, according to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, the number and quality of pre-sentence reports prepared by the Probation Service has been declining dramatically—thanks in no small part to the disruption caused by the Government’s ill-judged attempt to privatise the Probation Service. Given that good pre-sentence reports and good sentencing decisions go hand in hand, what are the Government doing to reverse this decline?

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness on the importance of pre-sentence reports. As I just said, the Government have put a great deal of investment into the Probation Service to, among other things, restore and improve pre-sentence reports. The Sentencing Council consultation—open now and completing in February—indicates that pre-sentence reports should be available in all cases except where the likely outcome is a fine or a conditional discharge. Once again, the Government are addressing the question the noble Baroness raises.