Visions of social control

Initially the Act appeared to be very successful in achieving its objectives in the immediate aftermath of its implementation. In 1993, the prison population had dipped temporarily to 40,000, but began to climb again on a steep ascent that has been unrelenting ever since and even the rise in the use of community sentences has been unable to curb. (Brownlee, 1998:24) The temporary reduction had done much to ease overcrowding, but by March 1994 on average prisons were 20% overcrowded. Sparks (1996:209) identified that three prisons actually recorded 70% overcrowding and throughout the system 8,500 inmates were sleeping two to a cell.

When prison population had reached a record 58,00 in November 1995, the Home Office was planning the construction of twelve new prisons in addition to the twenty-two built since 1979. Despite the optimism embodied in the 1991 Act reforms, many argued whether it had gone far enough. Even though the initially these reforms were partially effective in reducing the proportion of custodial sentences, due to the counter-reforming of 1993 these minimal gains were reversed as the government abandoned its commitment to the limitations of the use of custody which inevitably led to courts enforcing it more freely.

A landmark speech by the newly appointed Home Secretary to his party conference on 6th October 1993, made his intention unmistakably on tackling crime. Michael Howard spelt out the punitive intent behind the new thinking. "… Prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice… this will mean more people will go to prison. I do not flinch from that.

We shall no longer judge the success of justice by a fall in our prison population. " (Quoting Howard, 1993 in Brownlee, 1998:26) The percentage change in the prison population between 1992-7 clearly reflects the ideology at the time. The UK saw a 33% increase and by 1997 the population for England and Wales was 120 per 100,000 population, making it the 2nd highest in Europe (Home Office, 1999) In May 2000, Home Secretary Jack Straw announced a review of the 1991 framework for sentencing under John Halliday (2000).

Rather than seeking to curb the use of imprisonment for less serious offenders by promoting the usage of imprisonment, he focused more on 'progressive sentencing'. This could inevitably drive the prison population to new heights (Cavadino & Dignan, 2003:155) because of the flexibility of the 'seamless sentence', which would in practice be used to shift offenders from the community to prisons. In terms of the effectiveness of community sentences in reducing the prison population, one can firstly look at probation whose results have been widely variable.

In the early days it contributed to a substantial reduction until the beginning of world war two, but due to a decline in the usage for adult offenders its effect on numbers in prison was less relevant due to other community penalties coming into existence and an ideological shift in terms of the collapse of the rehabilitative ideal. The result of curfew orders, exclusion orders and electronic monitoring, due to its intrusive nature made it highly probably that the offender would end up in prison due to the controlling character of these sentences, even if the initial offense for which the sentence was imposed need not be imprisonable.

This highlights the extent that merely breaching many community penalties ends up with the offender receiving a custodial sentence. Among adult's community penalties in the 1980's successfully moved 'up-tariffs' to accommodate and riskier group of offenders. It is not surprising that this recent drift towards a less criminal community sentence population has coincided with a growth in imprisonment. Neither is it the case as many have argued that the "creation of 'alternatives to custody' necessarily had the intended effect of increased recruitment to the custodial part of the system" (quoting Raynor, 2002 in Maguire et al, 2002:1179)

Some commentators most notably, Cohen (1985) have argued that the creation of less severe sentencing options has merely drawn more people into the net of social control measures (net-widening) and therefore exposes them to more severe sanctions when lower tariff measures fail (tariff escalation). In terms of juvenile offenders if supervision orders are breached, custodial sentences are inevitably given much earlier in their criminal career than would otherwise be expected. A myriad of criticism was also made of the findings that suspended prison sentences had led to an increase in the prison population rather than a reduction.

This was seen to be due to judges passing suspended prison sentences in cases that would not have produced custodial ones and when some offenders re-offend, are subject to substantially longer custodial sentences than they might otherwise expect. But soon projects emphasized appropriate targeting to ensure only those genuinely at risk of custodial sentences became involved. In conclusion the unintended outcome as described by Cohen can occur, but can also be avoided by conscious attention to targeting. But as far as reducing prison populations it can be said that community sentences have failed in their initial objectives.