Community sentences 'not soft option'

PROBATION bosses last night insisted criminals were not being “let off the hook” after it emerged the number of community sentence orders in Suffolk has risen by 17% in the last five years.

Russell Claydon

PROBATION bosses last night insisted criminals were not being “let off the hook” after it emerged the number of community sentence orders in Suffolk has risen by 17% in the last five years.

Nearly 2,000 orders were handed out in 2007-8, meaning 115,304 hours of unpaid work were carried out around the county this year.

But as it emerged the Government was giving a further £397,000 to Suffolk to improve the effectiveness of community orders, one of the county's MPs said the sentences were not “a real punishment” and that criminals receiving them were getting lucky.

Suffolk Probation Service said 1,879 community sentences began in the county last year, compared to 1,595 in 2002-3. On March 31, there were 1,469 offenders on community sentences. The service has insisted community punishment is not a “soft option”.

But David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, called for a re-think on the sentences.

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“The orders are not effective,” he said. “We need community sentencing to be a real punishment. That means making offenders wear uniforms so that they feel they are actually carrying out a proper sentence in the community.

“There should be some kind of stigma, after all, many of those offenders serving community sentences have been lucky to avoid a custodial term in prison.”

The Probation Service pointed to the fact that the latest national statistics, collated by the Government, show re-offending rates for people who had been on community sentences were 50% after two years, compared to 72% for those who had served a prison sentence of less than one year.

John Budd, Suffolk Probation's chief officer, said: “Community sentences are not a soft option. We have an excellent record in Suffolk for enforcing them through the courts.

“But it is not just about punishment, community sentences are also vital for moving offenders away from crime, as well as ensuring that they make reparations to the community.”

John Doylend, Victim Support Suffolk's area manager said: “Victims might see in the short term someone going to prison is not going to offend against them but also the general public recognises prison does not work either, in terms of re-offending, and some suggest there is more re-offending (from former prisoners) and there is a longer term view as to what is most likely to stop re-offending.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The Government believes prison should be reserved for serious, dangerous and violent offenders and that others are normally better punished in the community.

“Community penalties can impose serious restrictions on liberty through curfew or unpaid work; and can also be directed towards educating offenders away from re-offending. They can be more effective than a short prison sentence.”

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