The government should not let bureaucracy get in the way of measures that will reduce reoffending and encourage rehabilitation, according to a justice thinktank which has been investigating a significant decline in the imposition of community sentences in England and Wales.
Earlier this year justice secretary David Gauke said short prison sentences should be imposed only 'where absolutely appropriate, given the evidence that those on community sentences are less likely to offend'. Instread more community sentences should be handed down, he said.
However, the Centre for Justice Innovation has today published a report, Renewing Trust: how we can improve the relationship between probation and the courts, which highlights a 'worrying sense that trust of sentencers in the delivery of community sentences is fraying'.
The report says magistrates and judges are concerned about a lack of information about the services provided by community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), a lack of transparency about a new rehabilitation activity requirement, and barriers to effective dialogue between CRCs and sentencers about community sentence options.
One magistrate told the thinktank that passing sentences is 'like sending people out into the wilderness' with no way of knowing what will happen to them. Any subsequent contact is likely to be for breach proceedings.
The centre makes 15 recommendations, including the need for 'clear' sentencing guidance on when a pre-sentence report is required. The Ministry of Justice is urged to enable sentencers to review offenders' progress in the community. Deferred sentencing for low-level offences and judicial monitoring should be widely adopted. Judge-led problem-solving approaches should be piloted.
The centre says: 'While we recognise that the extension of these approaches may impact on HM Courts & Tribunals Service timeliness targets, bureaucratic process measures can’t be allowed to get in the way of real outcomes, especially as [these] types of intervention are likely to reduce the use of custody and reduce reoffending.'
The Magistrates Association welcomed the report. John Bache, the association's national chair, said: 'We share its concerns about magistrates' confidence in community sentences and, to address this, agree that there is an urgent need to ensure that effective community sentences are made available in every area of the country, and that courts are properly informed about the community provision that is available in their area. Sentencers should also be given opportunities to review the progress made by offenders on community sentences. This would enable magistrates to give community sentences with confidence, knowing that they will help offenders to turn their lives around.'