Justice served by probation
New study confirms reoffending is much lower among those not sent to prison
An important new Irish research study, which tracked reoffending by persons who had been on probation orders or community service orders, has found that almost two in every three did not reoffend in the two years after being put on probation or community service by a court.
The study was undertaken and published jointly by the Probation Service and the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The research followed 3,576 offenders sentenced to probation or community service in 2007, tracking reoffending over the following two years as evidenced by any reconviction over the four years after supervision in the community was imposed. It is the first such study on supervised community sanctions carried out in this country and has important policy and practice implications.
Research findings include:
almost 63 per cent of offenders on probation or community service in 2007 had no further conviction for any offence committed in the following two years;
the overall reconviction rate was 37.2 per cent;
males made up 86 per cent of those tracked, and had a higher reconviction rate than female offenders in the study;
where reoffending did occur, it was more likely to be in the first year after the probation or community service order was made (27 per cent of those who reoffended) than in the second year (10 per cent); reoffending decreased as offenders got older;
public order was the most common original offence and these offenders also had the highest rate of reconviction (at 49 per cent);
the three most common offence types for which offenders were reconvicted – public order, theft and drugs – were the same as the three most common original offences.
For the study, the CSO carried out a complex data matching exercise, cross-checking statistical data held in relation to prosecution and court outcomes, as well as Probation Service case tracking data.
How do the findings from this research compare with similar studies carried out in other jurisdictions? The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) recently published a comparative study of reoffending in six jurisdictions – Scotland, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Norway and New Zealand. It compared reoffending rates both for those who had been imprisoned and those who had received community sentences. Reoffending rates in general varied between 30 per cent and 50 per cent across all the countries studied.
Irish statistics used in the study were relatively old (2001-2004) and focused solely on re-imprisonment rates of those completing prison sentences between 2001 and 2004. The findings then were that over a quarter were re-imprisoned within one year, with almost half being re-imprisoned within four years.
The international comparative evidence is that reoffending rates are significantly higher among those released from prison sentences than for those dealt with by alternatives such as probation and community service. British ministry of justice and other data point to rates of reoffending being significantly higher for those released from prison sentences of 12 months or less, compared to those serving longer sentences, and particularly when compared to offenders who receive community-based sentences.
Three significant measures in assessing sentence effectiveness, insofar as offender rehabilitation is concerned, are: the reoffending outcomes; and the actual and relative costs of implementing the sanctions.
The CSO-Probation Service study just published demonstrates our relative success when Ireland is benchmarked against international comparators in terms of reconviction outcomes. As well as our effectiveness in reducing the risk and rate of reoffending, Probation Service costs (source: Probation Service Annual Report, 2011) for managing probation orders (on average, €5,000 per order) and community service orders (€2,200 each) is evidence of value for money, both in terms of actual cost per order, and particularly when compared with the costs of implementing custodial sentences.
On the basis of our own research findings, and especially when compared internationally, there is strong evidence in favour of prioritisation of community sanctions as being effective and efficient in appropriate cases.
Clearly, custodial sentences are warranted for those who commit very serious crimes and who represent an ongoing danger to the public. However, it is extremely difficult to rehabilitate offenders through imprisonment alone. While prisoners deserve rehabilitative opportunities as well, offender rehabilitation programmes are most effective in reducing risk of reoffending when they are delivered in the community and target key risk factors.
If we are serious about offender rehabilitation, we must use imprisonment as a last resort and seek to divert as many offenders as possible away from jail. Supervised community sanctions, in the form of Probation and Community Service Orders, are effective and cost-efficient sanctions when applied appropriately and proportionately, as borne out by this research.
No single measure is 100 per cent effective in eliminating reoffending, but it makes sense to use interventions that have the most chance of success, in order to reduce the risk of future victimisation.
While the research highlights the relative success of probation officers and community service supervisors and our partner projects and programmes in helping offenders not to reoffend, it also points up areas for further study by way of research and development in effective offender programmes and interventions.
The real benefit of this CSO-Probation Service research will be realised through its replication on an annual basis, thus establishing trends in outcome indicators and key findings. Establishing baseline information on reoffending by persons sanctioned by the courts is a vital tool in penal policy planning and the CSO-Probation Service study is an important step in this direction.