Edward Boyd is Deputy Policy Director at the Centre for Social Justice.
Despite huge potential, community sentences are failing to properly punish and rehabilitate offenders.
The Centre for Social Justice’s latest report, Sentences in the Community, shows that around a third of offenders are committing 160,000 crimes within a year of being sentenced. This is driven, in part, by a growing number of prolific offenders – 27,000 people who were given community sentences for serious offences last year had already committed at least 15 crimes, a 75 per cent increase from a decade ago.
The current system is particularly weak at tackling drug addictions. Two-thirds of those given a community order say their drug habit was fuelling their criminality, yet the drug rehabilitation course we send 13,000 drug addicts on is woefully inadequate.
We heard how offenders “game’” the system and produce negative tests despite regularly taking class A drugs. As many drugs only stay in the system for a couple of days and because treatment providers are testing offenders at set times during the week, offenders are able to plan their drug use around the tests.
Even those who fail drug tests are rarely brought back to court. One offender told us he had tested positive more than 70 times and never faced a sanction because he was not reported by his probation officer.
This approach is as ludicrous as it is ineffective: 56 per cent of those given the drug rehabilitation course reoffend within a year.
To address this, the CSJ recommends we implement a highly successful American programme for prolific and drug offenders called Swift and Certain Sanctions.
The premise is simple: every time offenders breach their sentence they are seen by a judge within 24 hours and receive the short, sharp shock of a day or two in prison before returning to their sentence. Evidence shows this approach makes offenders take their sentence seriously and stick with their rehabilitation.
This new approach has swept through 20 American States and had a remarkable effect – a programme in Texas reduced reoffending by half, another in Hawaii cut missed sessions with probation by 61 per cent.
We desperately need to inject this ambition into our tired criminal justice system. The Government should pilot this approach to find out if the most promising criminal justice innovation in decades could revolutionise community sentences in the UK and make it a safer place to be.