Campaigners claim that magistrates are failing to use community sentences because they are unsure of their effectiveness. Anabel Unity Sale reports on the measures taken to convince them otherwise
Youth prisons are overflowing as the numbers of young offenders receiving custodial sentences continues to rise. Last
month, the Youth Justice Board warned that the secure estate for juveniles is running at 97 per cent capacity. One reason cited is that some magistrates distrust the alternatives to jail: community sentences.
If a convicted young offender does not pose a great threat to the public he or she can be issued with a community sentence. Community sentences aim to combine punishment with changing offenders’ behaviour and making amends for their crime. In 2004-5, 33,747 community sentences were issued to young offenders in England and Wales (up from 31,507 in 2003-4).(1) Youth offending teams are responsible for ensuring young offenders complete their community sentences by
monitoring their progress. The reconviction in 2004 for young offenders having served a community sentence was 68 per
cent (a 3 per cent fall from 2001), compared with a rate of 78 per cent for those who had been in custody.(2)
But why do some magistrates take a poor view of these sentences?
John Fassenfelt has been a youth court magistrate for 11 years and is chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s youth courts
committee. He says although magistrates support the concept of community sentences, in practice some lack faith in their effectiveness. “Some magistrates feel community sentences haven’t got any teeth or they will not be monitored effectively.”
He adds some magistrates are concerned about the content of community sentences, especially if young offenders are only
required to meet their YOT worker for a short time each week.
Laura Piacentini, Scotland committee member for the Howard League for Penal Reform and senior lecturer in criminology
and criminal justice at Strathclyde university, says some sheriffs at Scotland’s new youth courts do not believe that community sentences are effective.
Community sentences are sometimes seen by the public as an easy option, as if convicted muggers are usually told to clean up the local park as punishment. In an effort to improve the public’s perception of community sentences the Home Office launched a three-year campaign in winter 2004. A Home Office spokesperson says the campaign aims to show that such sentences “are tough and challenging punishments”.
The campaign ends next spring when it will be evaluated. Another initiative aimed at boosting faith in community sentences is the Local Crime: Community Sentence (LCCS) project. Run jointly by the Magistrates’ and the Probation Boards’ Associations it began being rolled out across England and Wales in September 2003. Under the scheme, a magistrate and a probation service worker give an interactive presentation to local community groups about community sentences and get them to debate a typical
case and choose a punishment. Christine Leeson, national director of LCCS, says it has proved successful in reassuring
local communities about the effectiveness of community sentences and improving working relations between magistrates and
probation. She adds: “If you ask someone if they want a young offender next door to them they say no but as soon as you put a
name and face to that young person then they want to know more.”
One person who knows how well community sentences can work for some offenders is Paula Williams, operations manager for
the community supervision team at Tower Hamlets and City of London youth offending team. She says community sentences
are useful because they enable practitioners to explore in detail with the young offender all the factors that may have contributed to their behaviour and how these can be addressed. “Community sentences help the young offender develop coping mechanisms and change the way they think.”
Her boss Stuart Johnson, head of youth offending services, recently received a letter from a district judge praising the work of the Tower Hamlets YOT. The judge wrote: “This means I can err on the side of community punishment knowing that the case
will be promptly brought back to court, often before me, on breach.”
Williams and Johnson agree that community sentences can work with some young offenders. Williams adds that a lot of young offenders benefit from the support they receive from practitioners when they serve a community sentence. “They believe they can make a positive change and believe in their own worth.”
So how can magistrates be encouraged to award more young offenders community sentences? Fassenfelt wants more to be done to improve the communication between magistrates and YOTs so magistrates can feel greater confidence over how YOTs operate. “We need to have more discussions with YOTs about the sentences that are passed. We have to develop good practice and spread it around.” He adds the more regularly magistrates meet with YOTs the likelier they are to issue community sentences with confidence.
Piacentini calls for more to be done to better engage with the public about the aims of the criminal justice system. She says: “Dealing with the public’s palpable mistrust of offenders needs to be tackled as a way forward in convincing sheriffs and magistrates that formal modes of punishment are not the way forward.”
Community sentences can work effectively at changing some young offenders’ behaviour. With just 3 per cent capacity left
in the juvenile estate it is imperative people get the message that alternatives to custody really have to be the way forward.