Critically assess the success of community

Critically assess the success of community sentences in terms of reducing the prison population. On Friday 26 July 2002, the prison population in England and Wales reached an all time high of 71,723. It was the culmination of a decade of growth in prison numbers under conservative and labour Home Secretaries that led to this. Twelve years ago the Prison population was seen to be declining as courts used more community based punishments. But that soon changed as Home secretaries followed up rhetoric of being 'tough' on crime by asking the courts to jail more people.

Historically, the UK's prison population rose throughout the twentieth century. The most significant increases began after 1951 when courts began sending more people to jail. The initial response to the rapidly escalating prison number crisis in the UK was to increase the range of non-custodial options that were available to judges and to encourage them to use them rather than imprisonment. The problem with kind of diversion strategy is that in the English context at least, it cannot be achieved directly through the executive.

The concept of judicial independence in terms of English public law means that the choice of sentence in individual cases is down to the judge's prerogative and that whilst parliament is competent in setting out a range of sanctions and the levels at which they should be set, the actual sentencing decisions are down to the discretion of each judge and magistrate. Regardless of intentions attached to the creation of 'alternatives to custody, it has not only failed to reduce the size of the prison population but for much of the time it has even seemed incapable of preventing an increase in custody.

This combined with other factors has given way to an alternative 'supply-side approach' (Cavadino & Dignan, 2003:121) where the demand of custodial measures is met by building more prisons which still may not be sufficient enough to satisfy the demand. The majority of non-custodial penalties have been introduced relatively recently in response to growing anxiety over the seemingly brutal rise in post-war prison numbers. To understand the changing positions in relation to community punishments a context must be set.

During the 1960's and 1970's, it became apparent that traditional substitutes were unable to contain the prison number crisis. So it was in this context that suspended sentences and community service orders appeared. Although the continuing lack of guidance to how judges should implement these measures, the proportionate use of imprisonment for adult offenders rose from 13. 4% in 1975 to 21% in1980 (Cavadino & Dignan, 2003:122) and was therefore the underlying factor in the shift of government policy in the late 1980's.

At the same time ideology of the New Right sought to reinforcement individualism, nationalism and primacy of the family by encouraging the stigmatization of 'out-groups' and emphasizing the need for social discipline, rehabilitation was seen too 'soft' and what offenders needed was greater control and surveillance. The 1991 Criminal Justice Act introduced community sentences as penalties in their own right rather then merely 'alternatives to custody' in which they were held previously. The 1991 Act came into force in October 1992 and was the first major review of criminal justice legislation since 1982.

It aimed to provide a sentencing framework based on the principle of just desserts with only the most severe of offenders being imprisoned. The background to this Act was a growing concern with overcrowding in prisons and the related belief that alternatives were, as described above the 'soft option'. The Woolf report into prison disturbances of April 1990 and the Reed report into the treatment of mentally disordered offenders had both highlighted the dangers of inappropriate custodial sentences and overcrowding. There was also recognition that sentencing lacked consistency and that this in itself was unjust

The whole point of the 1991 Act was to reduce the prison population by decentring the prison from penal discourse. Worrall (1997:37) discusses four ways in which this was done. First, focusing on the seriousness of the offense and limiting the extent to which previous convictions would be taken into account; second by raising the status of community penalties; third, by making financial punishments fairer, so fewer people would go to prison for non-payment; and fourth, by explicitly outlawing discrimination therefore aiming to reduce to disproportionate amount of black people in prison.