By Eleanor Curzon and Julian V. Roberts
• The Suspended Sentence Order (SSO) is a custodial sentence option available to magistrates and judges in England and Wales. Providing an offence has crossed the custody threshold, and that the sentence to be imposed is not less than 14 days and not greater than two years in duration, the SSO provides courts with an option to suspend a sentence of imprisonment, allowing the offender to serve their sentence of imprisonment in the community rather than in custody.
• The SSO can be imposed unconditionally, or the magistrate or judge can impose any number of 15 requirements, either alone or in combination. The cost of the SSO is far less than a term of immediate imprisonment.
• The use of the SSO has changed little over the past decade, representing approximately 4-5% of offenders sentenced each year across all courts. However, whilst its use has remained stable overall across all offences, the proportionate use of SSOs in relation to the more serious indictable offences has increased over the past decade. This has contributed to a proportionate increased use of custodial sentences for indictable offences during this period.
• The Sentencing Council Definitive Guideline from 2017 emphasised that an SSO should only be imposed on offenders where the custody threshold had been crossed. However, the limited available research suggests that the SSO is sometimes imposed in cases where the custody threshold has not been crossed. This can have a ‘net-widening’ effect whereby those who should receive a Community Order or lesser sentence are, in fact, receiving a more severe sanction – the SSO. More research is required in this area, particularly as the use of the Community Order has declined (almost down 46% in the past decade) and it may be that use of the SSO is connected.
• There is little current research on the SSO and additional research is clearly needed. Research gaps include exploring how the SSO is viewed by magistrates, judges and the public, whether SSOs reduce re-offending, how often SSO requirements are breached, whether such breaches are always recorded and if a breach occurs, whether an offender will be immediately imprisoned.