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UK – Ministry of Justice: Do offender characteristics affect the impact of short custodial sentences and court orders on reoffending?

25th May 2018

Short-term custodial sentences (under 12 months) without supervision on release are associated with higher levels of reoffending than sentences served in the community via court orders (community orders and suspended sentence orders). An Analytical Summary recently published by the Ministry of Justice examines the reoffending impact of short-term custodial and court order sentences on different groups of offenders. It explores whether the reoffending impact differs according to offenders’ age, ethnicity, gender, and mental health, and according to the number of previous offences. This report also provides further analysis on the reoffending impact of suspended sentence orders compared with similar cases where community orders were given. Such information may be useful for identifying groups particularly at risk of reoffending.

Reoffending datasets were used in the analysis, containing details of adult offenders released from a short-term custodial sentence or commencing a court order in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. Approximately 353,000 offence-level records were analysed which suggests that the findings in this report are broadly representative. Reoffending was mostly examined over a one-year follow-up period, with a further six months allowed for cases to go through the courts. Cautions and convictions constitute reoffending. The follow-up period for reoffending starts from sentencing for court orders and from prison release for the custodial sentences, thereby taking into account time spent in the community.

The report highlights the following key findings:

  1. In comparison to short-term custody, lower levels of reoffending were associated with the use of court orders.
  2. The relative effectiveness of court orders in reducing reoffending compared to short-term custody was greater for people who had committed more previous offences. For people with no previous offences, there was no statistically significant difference between the reoffending associated with short-term custody and that associated with court orders. For those with more than 50 previous offences, the odds of reoffending were 36% higher where short-term custody rather than a court order was given.
  3. After controlling for the number of previous offences, the relative effectiveness of court orders in reducing reoffending differed according to an offender’s age group. The use of court orders was associated with more benefit for the youngest and oldest age groups (18–20 and 50 and over), and less benefit for those aged 21–29. Using short-term custody rather than court orders was most effective in reducing reoffending for those aged 21-29.
  4. The relative effectiveness of court orders in reducing offending compared to short-term custody was greater for those with identified mental health issues. Among those with no previous offences, the odds of reoffending for those assessed to have significant current psychiatric problems were 11% higher where short-term custody rather than a court order was given. Among those with more than 50 previous offences, the odds of reoffending for those assessed to have significant current psychiatric problems were 67% higher where short-term custody rather than a court order was given.
  5. After controlling for the number of previous offences, there was no statistically significant effect of gender or ethnicity on the reoffending impact of court orders compared to short-term custody.
  6. In general, suspended sentence orders were associated with lower levels of reoffending than community orders. Over a one-year follow-up period, suspended sentence orders were associated with a reduced reoffending rate of around 4% compared to similar cases where community orders were given, with a smaller impact over longer follow-up periods. Looking at the 2008 cohort for example, this difference reduced slightly to 2.4% over a three-year follow-up period, and to 2% over a five-year follow-up period. Over five years, 67% of those given suspended sentence orders and 69% of those given community orders re-offended.

In an Irish context, IPRT launched a major research study in October 2017 on the operation of community service orders as alternatives to short prison sentences in Ireland. Administrative data from the Irish Prison and Probation Services pertaining to all cases sentenced to a short-term of imprisonment or community service order between 2011 and 2012, were linked with criminal history and re-arrest data from An Garda Síochána, and comparative analyses were conducted. The results of the IPRT research reflect the findings of the Analytical Summary published by the Ministry of Justice. When cases that did not successfully complete their community service order were excluded, it was found that short-term prison cases were more likely to be rearrested at all follow-up periods when compared to community service order cases that successfully completed their orders. However, this result was not statistically significant. This study also highlighted that those serving community service orders were more focused on their long-term options than those serving short-term prison sentences.

The Analytical Summary published by the Ministry of Justice is available here.

Dr Kate O’Hara’s PhD research project is available here. IPRT also published a Discussion Paper based on the qualitative findings of the study, with key recommendations as to how community service orders could be better utilised in the future. This Discussion Paper is available here.

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