Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: The Effectiveness of Sentencing Options – A review of key research findings

6th January 2021

The Sentencing Academy (England and Wales) has published a report by Melissa Hamilton (School of Law, University of Surrey) examining research findings on the effectiveness, particularly in terms of reducing re-offending, of three key sentencing disposals: immediate imprisonment, suspended sentence orders and community orders.

Reducing re-offending is central to the five key sentencing objectives in England and Wales (punishment, reduction of crime, reparation, rehabilitation and pubic protection). The report summarises findings on the effectiveness of imprisonment, suspended sentence orders and community orders. Re-offending rates are key to this research.

The report notes that more research and longer follow-up periods around release are needed to better evaluate the impact of these sentences.


Sentencing in England and Wales:

When determining sanctions English and Welsh courts will apply a ‘custody threshold’ which determines whether a custodial sentence is necessary or whether a fine or community sentence may be justifiable. Custodial sentences are reserved for the most serious offences. They consist mostly of:

  1. Determinate prison sentences: immediate custody with a fixed period of time to be served in prison.
  2. Suspended sentence orders: (SSOs) involve the imposition of custodial sentence which is then suspended for a period (14 days to 2 years) which allows the offender to remain in the community with possible conditions attached.

Community orders can be up to 36 months and must include 1 specified requirement, chosen to address the offender’s needs and promote their rehabilitation.

In the year ending March 2020 the distribution of sentences was as follows: fines (78%), immediate custody (7%), community orders (7%), suspended orders (3%) and conditional discharges (3%).


Key findings:

The imprisonment rate and average sentence length have been steadily rising in England and Wales, increasing 46% between 2010 and 2020.

Imprisonment, although intended as having a deterrent effect, can create criminogenic effects: interaction with other offenders encouraging offending behaviours, labelling and stigma inside and outside prison, negative impact on ability to lead ‘free’ and crime-free lives after prison.

Short-term imprisonment can be even more counter-productive as the first few weeks of imprisonment are chaotic and short sentences don’t allow for enough rehabilitation and can cause huge disruption in offenders’ lives.

The highest re-offending rates for those who had been imprisoned was seen with those who had served the shortest sentences, with 66% re-offending. (Apr, 2017 - Mar, 2018)

Offenders who had served a custodial sentence had a higher re-offending rate (48%) than those who served community orders (33%) or suspended sentence orders (30%). There was an even bigger difference in re-offending rates in cases of short-term custodial sentences/short-term community orders and SSOs.

Prisoners who frequently entered prison on short-term sentences were interviewed and did not view their time in prison as rehabilitative, but instead an inevitability and continuation of problems they faced in the community (often worsened by imprisonment).

Supervision after release from short-term sentences has recently been introduced in England and Wales and has not been researched definitively yet to determine whether it impacts re-offending, although immediate data shows that even with supervision, short-term custodial sentences often still produce higher re-offending rates than other sentences.


Read ‘The Effectiveness of Sentencing Options – A review of key research findings’ on the Sentencing Academy website here.

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