Community Orders: March 2021

By Dr Eoin Guilfoyle
• The Community Order (CO) is one of the non-custodial sentencing options available to magistrates and judges in England and Wales. It allows magistrates and judges to choose between 15 requirements, combining them if needs be, when sentencing a person. The CO can fulfil any of the purposes of sentencing. It was designed to be flexible and capable of being tailored to the individual needs of the person being sentenced.
• The use of the CO has decreased significantly in recent years. The number of COs imposed each year has almost halved (down 46%) over the past decade. When considering the proportionate use of the four main sanctions for more serious offences (fines, COs, Suspended Sentence Orders and immediate custody), it is COs that have experienced, by far, the greatest decline.
• Research studies and reports have identified a range of potential issues and problems with the CO and how it operates and have provided some insight into why the use of the sanction is declining. These include a lack of confidence in COs amongst magistrates and judges, a decline in the use of presentence reports, a lack of information about available services and how they operate, limited availability of some requirements and issues with breach procedures.
• The ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ (TR) reforms introduced in 2014, which split the delivery of COs between the National Probation Service (NPS) and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), have also been criticised in a number of reports. It has recently been announced that the public/private split will be abolished with the NPS to be given responsibility for both the management of offenders and the delivery of unpaid work and accredited programmes. While reports suggest that the TR reforms may have exacerbated some of the issues and problems noted above and therefore may have contributed to the decline in the use of the CO, it is unlikely that they are the sole and root cause of the decline. The decline in the use of the CO and many of the issues and problems identified predate the introduction of the reforms and therefore will likely continue to be a concern after the revised plan has been implemented.
• There are many aspects of the CO that would benefit from additional research. While the research discussed in this paper highlight some potential causes of the reduction in the use of the CO, we still do not have a complete understanding as to why the use of the sanction is declining. Additional research on the factors contributing to the decline and ways to overcome them would be beneficial. Research focusing on identifying different measurements of effectiveness for the CO other than reconviction would also be welcomed. It would also be useful to conduct more research into public knowledge of, and attitudes towards, the community order.
Read the full report here