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Report Exposes Hidden Costs of Community Sentences Over Custody

Another Coalition policy is beginning to unravel, as independent commentators look more closely at the details. The internationally respected former Home Office criminologist, Professor Ken Pease, has shown that it will not be feasible to save money by releasing convicted prisoners from jail. According to Prison, Community Sentencing and Crime, not only does the available evidence suggest that offending will not be reduced, the Government’s hope of cutting expenditure on prisons can only be achieved by ignoring the impact on victims of crime – costs that the Home Office itself has acknowledged and quantified.

Misguided assumptions

Ken Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice, and Andrew Bridges, Chief Inspector of Probation, have argued for fewer and shorter sentences on cost grounds. Sir David Latham, England and Wales’ parole chief, claimed that ‘society needs to realise that we can’t create a world which is free of risk’ while making the case for releasing more offenders on licence. Crispin Blunt, Justice Minister, suggested that locking more criminals up represents ‘a failure to deal with crime and a failure to tackle re-offending’. However, such arguments fail to account for several key factors:

  • Existing community sentences, compared with prison sentences, have no apparent impact on re-offending rates. (p. 7)
  • Offenders are prevented from committing crimes against the general public while in prison. (p. 4)
  • The number of crimes committed by offenders is much larger than the number for which they are eventually convicted; for example one estimate suggested as many as 136 burglaries per conviction for burglary. (p. 9)
  • The substantial economic costs associated with each offence that have to be borne by individuals, businesses and public services. For example, a single theft (on average) is estimated to cost £1,000, a serious wounding £21,000. (p. 9)

Ken Pease, author of the report, uses Home Office estimates to show that 13,892 offences resulting in convictions could be prevented by keeping offenders on short sentences in prison for one extra month. However, this is only a small proportion of the overall offences prevented given the number of offences undetected or detected but not officially processed. (p. 10)

Pease estimates that if every successful conviction represented a conservative 5.9 offences committed by the offender, then the costs of imprisonment would be the same as the costs of crime prevented. This means that for Britain’s more prolific offenders (many of whom are currently given only short sentences), it would be less costly to keep them in prison for longer periods than to give them alternative sentences in the community where they have the capacity to re-offend.

This heavily undermines assumptions that our current rate of imprisonment is a net cost to society. A significant Italian study (p. 6) suggests that periodic pardons of prisoners there cost a great deal in additional crime committed. A recent pardon is estimated to have cost some two billion euros in additional crime. Failure to use prison sentences when appropriate could lead to increases in crime which are costly both in financial terms and in denying respite from crime to the most hard-pressed communities.

Misconceptions about prison

  • Ken Clarke and others have implied that Britain has a punitive prison policy on a par with the Victorian era. However, as Pease notes: ‘When one calculates the prison population in relation to the number of crimes recorded, the illusion of harsh sentencing disappears.’ (p.3)
  • Andrew Bridges claims that each prisoner costs ‘at least £40,000’ a year. But, as the report shows, this is a grossly inflated estimate according to Government figures: ‘…the most recent Prisons Annual Report calculates annual cost per prisoner at £27,343.’ (p. 4)

Incapacitation impact of prison ignored by official statistics

The report notes that official statistics ignore the impact of incapacitation on re-offending. Re-offending rates between community and custodial sentences are compared from the start of community sentences but from the end of custodial sentences. This means that the primary benefit of prison, the prevention of crime during an offender’s sentence, is excluded from government comparisons of the costs and benefits of different sentencing regimes, biasing analyses in favour of supposedly ‘less expensive’ non-custodial sentences. Ken Pease explains:

‘Someone convicted four times in the year after getting a community penalty is regarded as an equal success or failure as someone convicted four times in the year after being released from one year in prison, despite the fact that in the one year in prison, no convictions occurred. The one year of respite that prison gave the community is, and always has been, simply spirited out of reconviction statistics, leaving the impression that imprisonment and community sentences are equivalent purveyors of public protection.’

    (more explanation on p.3 of the report)

This means that prison sentences are not given a fair hearing during policy considerations. Their likely substantial impact on crime reduction is at best overlooked and, at worst, ignored.

Community sentences versus prison

1. Impact of community sentences on re-offending

Home Office statistics show that the type of sentence has very little effect on the likelihood of individuals re-offending.

‘The reconviction figures for both community sentences and custody are almost exactly as would be predicted beforehand. In short, community sentences as currently delivered have no evident effect on rates of reconviction.’ (p. 7)

This indicates that, in all likelihood, ‘community sentences afford no measurable level of public protection’ (p. 7) and that, until better community sentence regimes are developed, prison remains an indispensable option in reducing re-offending rates through incapacitation and deterrence.

2. Impact of prison sentences on re-offending

The report suggests a more realistic way to model the incapacitation effect of imprisonment on crime. It acknowledges that the re-conviction rate is only a small proportion of crime committed by offenders and that significantly more crime can be prevented through incapacitating likely repeat offenders. It also applies the Home Office’s study of the economic and social costs of crime to estimate savings made through successful crime prevention.

Pease examines the highest re-offending group on release: offenders given sentences of less than 12 months in prison. They have an average re-conviction rate of over three crimes per annum (p. 8). He calculates that keeping this group in prison for one extra month would cost around £90 million (p.10). However, on relatively conservative assumptions, that additional cost of imprisonment will be recouped through the cost of crime prevented that otherwise blights local communities. If this high re-offending group commits 5.9 offences for every offence they are convicted for, then the economic costs have already broken even with the costs of crime prevented. In addition, communities have been spared a higher crime rate.

The true figure of re-offending is likely to be far higher, making prison a bargain rather than a burden. (p. 10)

For more information contact:

Nick Cowen at Civitas on: 020 7799 6677
David Green on 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Civitas is an independent think tank. Its research programme receives no state funding and it has no links to any political party.

ii. Professor Ken Pease, of the Manchester Business School, is an internationally acclaimed criminologist. He has acted as a consultant to a number of international organisations including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Customs Co-operation Council. He is also a former Parole Board member.

iii. Prison, Community Sentencing and Crime can be read below.


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