Nick Cowen, a lecturer in Criminology at the University of Lincoln, discusses a House of Commons Library POSTNote on Non-custodial Sentences which suggests that community sentences are more consistently associated with reductions in acquisitive crime than custodial sentences. The POSTNote draws on research by Nick and colleagues at the University of Birmingham.
On Monday 27th January, the Parliamentary Office of Science Technology released a new report by Robert Mann and Rowena Bermingham: Non-Custodial Sentences. The report explains that non-custodial sentences make up the vast majority of criminal sanctions in the UK and that they tend to be associated with lower rates of offending in the long-term compared to prison sentences.
The report also finds that the public is generally sceptical of the effectiveness of non-custodial sanctions and tend to support greater use of prison. However, when asked to propose theoretical sentences for individual cases with full background information, members of the public tend to become more lenient in their judgement. This suggests that, in principle, less punitive sanctions can command legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
This evidence is critical for MPs in the current context in which the Government is proposing policies involving more punitive sanctions. This is despite England and Wales already having the highest incarceration rates in Western Europe.
The POSTNote draws on an article ‘Alternatives to Custody’ by Nick Cowen (University of Lincoln) with colleagues from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing. Published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2019, the article analyses the relationship between local sentencing practices and recorded crime rates from 2002-2013. It finds that community sentences are more consistently associated with reductions in acquisitive crime than custodial sentences. Identifying potential alternative sanctions for violent crime is more challenging although conditional discharges, fines and suspended sentences are associated with some reductions.
This suggests that existing criminal justice policy makes an important contribution to reducing crime and that there is more scope to develop sanctions that further reduce offending while avoiding the costs and harm of prison.