Alternative Sentences

Experience of alternative sentencing around the world suggests three elements are important if they are to play an optimum  role in reducing imprisonment . The first is the importance of targeting alternatives on offenders who are genuine candidates for imprisonment.

There is a common experience in many countries that whatever the intention of the legislators, alternative sentences can end up being  imposed on offenders whose crimes are actually not really  serious enough to warrant a prison sentence. In the worse case of this so called “net widening”, a minor criminal might receive an alternative sentence , then fail to comply with it – not turn up for community service for example- and then end up being sent to prison – not for the original crime but for failing to complete the alternative sentence.

In these cases, alternatives are not reducing the prison population but increasing it.

The second element concerns the need to adopt a balanced and affordable approach to implementation and enforcement   Public confidence and the rule of law requires that offenders fulfil the obligations that they have had imposed on them.

But the objective of those responsible for implementing these sentences must be to help offenders to achieve that compliance. Some flexibility is necessary.   As for who is responsible for implementing alternative sentences, many high income countries have well established probation services but these are not the only model.

In some countries, supervising alternative sentences  is undertaken by officers of the penitentiary service ,or   a role is played by ngo’s . Introducing alternatives does not require an expensive new organisation to supervise them.  .

The final key element is the need to educate the public and media about  alternatives to prison. It is often supposed that the public in many countries feel that alternatives are a soft option.

Experience suggests that giving people the chance to see the positive impact of unpaid work done by offenders and a say in selecting the kind of work that they should do can help to boost confidence in a penalty which is not costing society but benefitting it.

It is also the experience in Europe at least that when the public are given more information about the kinds of people who end up in prisons, the factors that lie behind their crimes, and the actual sentencing practices of the courts   their attitudes may change.

Many people seriously underestimate how severe the courts are and especially in respect of certain categories of offender- young people, women, those with mental health or drug addiction problems are prepared to consider alternatives to prison a better option in certain cases