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Report exposes hidden costs of community sentences over custody

Civitas, 28 August 2010

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)


i. 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.

ii. Prison, Community Sentencing and Crime can be read here.

6 comments on “Report exposes hidden costs of community sentences over custody”

  1. 1. This article is based on a grossly inaccurate assumption that most unsolved crimes are committed by those convicted of crimes.

    2. The article ignores the fact that “incapacitation effects” would be just as strong in prisons with no punitive element.

    3. The article ignores the fact that prevention could be achieved by other means. For sheer cost-effectiveness, it would be cheaper to bribe someone not to commit crime.

    4. The article cannot explain why countries with lower imprisonment rates than Britain have similar or lower crime rates. This is because the author is in denial that crime has social causes.

    5. The article does not consider crimes committed WITHIN prison – both by prisoners against one another, and by abusive guards against prisoners. The prisoner who commits four crimes after release was probably committing a dozen crimes a year while in jail, and being victim of another dozen – all unrecorded.

    6. Mr. Hollwill has no evidence that his draconian approach “works”, since he is not a social researcher. Most likely, he just gave hundreds of vulnerable young people PTSD, on top of whatever problems they already had. Congratulations, Mr. Hollwill. Even if you reduced “crime” (which I doubt), you increased the amount of suffering in the world exponentially.

  2. As a Magistrate of 28 years I have seen many types of intervention used in trying to reduce crime rates and re-offending. Some are much better than others and all require resources which are available to varying degrees, but the one which did make an impact was the ‘short, sharp, shock’. This was used in part for young offenders to give them an idea of what could lie ahead if they continued in the life of crime they had started on. I do believe it was successful in a lot of cases. Overall I would agree with the report above that prison should be used, particularly bearing in mind that these days before an offender is sent to prison many other options have been tried and obviously found to be of no use in stopping the offending.

  3. I have just been reading the above report and the poor line of argument sticks out for me like a sore thumb:

    “The first, long-standing means of depicting us as penal sadists is by asserting that the prison
    population is higher in England and Wales than elsewhere (the comparisons are primarily with Western Europe). The impression is created by calculating the prison population as a proportion of the general population, hence assuming that the frailest grandparent and the youngest baby are as likely to commit crime as the young adult. It is like expressing prostate cancer sufferers as a proportion of the population of men and women combined, rather than of men, the only people with prostate glands. When one calculates the prison population in relation to the number of crimes recorded, the impression of harsh sentencing disappears.”

    This is a false argument, indeed prison populations is often presented as a proportion of the general population. However, I have not seen any suggestion that the method of calculating imprisonment rates is any different in any of the countries with which England and Wales are compared. Therefore unless there is some unique demographic difference between the countries, the comparison stands.

    I have never seen the ‘assumption’ that the very elderly and very young are as likely to commit crime as the young adult. I have, however, seen statistics that show that people aged 60 and over are now the fastest growing age group in the prison estate and that the number of prisoners aged 60 and over rose by 148% between 1998 and 2008:

    • NOMS, Safer Custody News, January/February 2008
    • Ministry of Justice (2009) Offender Management Caseload Statistics 2008, London: Ministry of Justice

    Also, in 2008/9 377 children aged 10-17 with no previous convictions received a custodial sentence:

    • Hansard HC, 7 December 2009

    So as Professor Pease says, we should not assume that there is an elderly or pre-school crime wave. However, we should not also assume that the very young or very old do not end up in prisons. Furthermore, this line of thinking sidesteps the view that if you were to calculate the statistics differently and only look at 21-35 year olds, England and Wales would still, in all likelihood, come out with the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe.

    “The second means of making community sentences equal to imprisonment in terms of public
    protection is simple. It is by comparing reconviction rates in a way which takes out the primary effect of imprisonment, i.e. the temporary respite from crime which society enjoys when some of those who offend against it are absent. Published reconviction rates are invariably calculated from the time of sentence for community sanctions, and from the point of release for custody. For example, suppose one offender receives a community penalty. On the same day, another receives a prison sentence, meaning he will spend one year inside. Suppose both are convicted an average of three times a year. After one year, the person who got the community sanction will have been convicted three times, and the prisoner (assuming prison security is adequate) zero times. After two years, the ex-prisoner will have racked up a total of three convictions since his sentence. The person on the community sentence will have racked up six. The way reconviction rates are calculated means that these two people will be regarded as equal successes (or failures). The one year of respite that prison gave the community is simply spirited out of reconviction statistics, leaving the impression that imprisonment and community sentences are equivalent purveyors of public protection.”

    This is a hugely over-simplified use of an example to illustrate what is a much more complicated multi-dimensional problem? What happens to those two ‘example’ individuals after two years? Do they just disappear off the face of the planet, or die, or what? And what happens to the individual who is in prison whilst he is in there and after he comes out? What about ten years down the line when the person who got the prison sentence has been in and out of jail continually?

    The individual sent to prison, if he has employment, will probably lose it. If he has his own accommodation, he will probably lose it. His associations with family and friends, if they are present pre-sentence, will be compromised, particularly if he is sent to a prison far away from where he normally resides. If he has an intimate relationship, there is a good chance it will end. If he is attending any course of study or training, it will be interrupted or ended. If he has mental health problems, they could get worse. If he has problems with substance abuse, they are unlikely to improve due to the wide availability of drugs in prisons.

    Furthermore his conviction remains ‘unspent’ for ten years, rather than five years for the person with the community order. This means that not only will he find it harder to find work upon release and have to pay more for insurance on any home or vehicle that he has, but that he will have this problem for twice as long as someone on a community sentence.

    Professor Pease makes the example taking a very narrow perspective that if a person is in jail they cannot commit crime and therefore the cost to society in terms of the crime they would have committed in the community is saved. True, this saving does exist. However, the long term societal effects of imprisonment are much, much wider than those that he examines and include for former prisoners:

    • Greater potential for long-term unemployment
    • Potentially greater use of social housing and pressure on the agencies responsible for delivering this and other resettlement needs
    • Potentially greater use of healthcare services (mental healthcare)
    • Potentially longer-term drug and alcohol dependency (than someone who is given assistance to address this through community sentencing)

    I could go on…so I will:

    • The emotional and mental health impact on partners/family/friends/children of having the offender separated from them by imprisonment
    • The subsequent increased use healthcare and social services by these people
    • The economic impact on these groups of having to pay increased home insurance premiums for longer periods.

    I think you get the idea.

    This report really needed to consider that ‘criminals’ do not exist in complete isolation from the rest of society. They use public services, they have associations with other people in society that also use these services and imprisonment means that both the offender and all these other people are more likely to use these service more frequently. Weigh up the cost of that with the short term impact of stopping a person offending for a short period whilst in prison and suddenly the savings that Professor Pease identifies do not look very impressive against robust community sentencing.


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