Journalists sometimes characterise a court's use of such a measure as the offender "escaping prison" - the suggestion being that only depriving the criminal of his or her liberty amounts to a suitably rigorous punishment.
Custody and community are often seen as polar opposites in the justice lexicon: custody is tough; community is soft; prison is properly punitive; probation is a let-off.
The very word "community" has become associated in the minds of some with indulgent and misplaced compassion, a dangerously naive belief in the essential goodness of society.
It is cast as a left-right thing too, of course. Spiky traditionalists demand punitive sanctions. Fluffy liberals want care and rehabilitation.Sounds familiar, huh? But Easton reports that conservative leaders in Britain are moving away from such cliched dichotomies, citing in particular a new public policy report (pdf) with a foreward authored by a leading conservative thinker:
The criminal justice think-tank Make Justice Work wanted to introduce some rationality into this debate and a year ago assembled a panel of experts to consider "community or custody".
The commission included senior figures from across the criminal justice system and was headed by the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne, an influential figure in shaping conservative thinking.
Today we see the fruits of their labour, a unanimous report with Oborne invited to write the foreword however he saw fit.
"The first point that became shatteringly clear was that alternatives to prison are not a soft option as so often portrayed," he says.
Bemoaning the way "the debate is framed in favour of those who urge long prison sentences", he says his conclusion at the end of his year-long study is that "Ken Clarke's revolution is the most intelligent and realistic answer to many of the most intractable problems in the criminal justice system".
If other members of the committee had written that - former prisons inspector Dame Anne Owers or former Met commissioner Lord Blair for example - I suspect their words would have been quickly dismissed as woolly liberal propaganda.
But Oborne is part of the Tory establishment: independent minded but a man who understands and respects the way conservatives think.
The committee's report focuses on the problem of persistent, low-level offenders "who are currently filling our prisons to breaking point - and who leave prison only to offend again, and again". (For the perpetrators of serious and violent crime, the panel agreed, "custody is the only just and effective punishment".)
The conclusion is that rigorous community programmes not only deliver "real reductions in reoffending" they can also "cut crime at a fraction of the cost of prison".
Latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show that non-custodial sentences are up to 9% more effective at preventing reoffending than short prison terms and today's report points out that while a three month prison sentence costs around £11,000, a year-long intensive community justice course costs half of that.I find this commentary especially notable because Britain's incarceration rate is so much lower than the United States', much less Texas'. (England's per 100,000 incarceration rate is 153, Newsweek reported Monday, compared to 743 in the US.) So if they're incarcerating more people than is justified based on a pure cost-benefit analysis, imagine how many prison inmates here might have been better served by strong probation programs! Looking at the report (pdf), Osborne's foreword is especially remarkable for his recognition that probation or "community" sentences can be "tougher" than prison:
The first point that became shatteringly clear was that alternatives to prison are not a soft option so often portrayed. In Manchester the Intensive Alternative to Custody Project was incredibly impressive and really opened my eyes.
Here young criminals were given very demanding community work. They were monitored night and day. They were obliged to confront their alcohol and drug problems- the issues that had typically got them into trouble in the first place. I was hugely impressed by the social worker who dealt with the offenders’ families. Again and again by talking to parents and siblings she would identify the deep problems that had sent offenders down a life of crime- and then mobilise families to provide support.
A number of the offenders at this Manchester course told us that it would have been much easier to have gone to prison for three months, and that some people did indeed make the decision to drop out and go to jail. But for those who did fully participate in the very intrusive and challenging twelve month alternative programme the rewards were huge.
By the end of it they had often been found jobs. They were far less likely to commit another crime and by the end some were well on the way to becoming fully-fledged members of society. It is perfectly true, as Conservative MPs in particular like to claim, that prisoners cannot commit crimes while in jail. But they are far more likely to reoffend when they have served their term than those who have been given an alternative punishment. At the woman’s project we visited in Bradford the reoffending rate is between 5-10%.Sitting in a jail cell isn't that hard compared to confronting bad habits, addiction, working a steady job and eliminating negative influences in one's life. Indeed, too often prison is little more than an easy substitute for requiring offenders to do those things. Everyone would be better off - victims, offenders and taxpayers - with a justice system which recognized that fact and focused on changing behaviors, where possible, instead of mere punishment/incapacitation.
Furthermore the costs do not bear comparison. Three months in prison costs a bare minimum of £11,000 - the full 12 month Manchester course is approximately half that.
Britain also is apparently putting a lot more state resources into "community" sentences, whereas, for example, in Texas the majority of local probation department funding comes from probationer fees. If the Manchester program costs half what incarceration does in the UK, in Texas we spend far less than they do on probation programming. According to the LBB's Uniform Cost Report, in 2010 imprisonment cost the state an average of $50.79 per day, compared to $2.92 for probation - more than a 17-1 ratio. The Manchester program sounds impressive, but it doesn't sound free. Since they incarcerate so much less than we do, though, the money "saved" can be spent on probation and still cost (a lot) less than the justice system in the US. Similarly, this blog has long advocated reforming Texas' justice system by closing our most expensive prison units, reducing incarceration rates, and reinvesting the savings in strong probation programs like those described here. We don't need to spend more money, we need to spend it smarter.
Finally, if regrettably, I don't expect the American media any time soon to embrace Mr. Osborne's realization that their "reporting is often loaded" or that "the debate is framed in favour of those who urge long prison sentences," though the same thing is true of American crime reporting, in spades. The flaws that cause that dynamic are too deeply engrained in the structure of how American news stories are typically written (a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately, but which will have to wait for another day). Still, it's good to see memes the Right on Crime movement among American conservatives developed even more fully among their counterparts across the Atlantic.