Non-Custodial Sentences

27 Jan 2020 12:21 PM

Non-custodial sentences are those that do not include imprisonment, such as discharges, fines and community orders. When sentencing an individual, criminal courts judge whether an offence is serious enough to impose a custodial sentence (either immediate imprisonment or a suspended sentence) or a non-custodial sentence. Criminal justice is devolved, so this POSTnote focuses on non-custodial sentences in England and Wales. In the year ending June 2019, 90% of sentences in England and Wales were non-custodial. This POSTnote presents sentencing trends and describes the non-custodial sentences currently used for adults and young people in England and Wales. It also reviews evidence on the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences and discusses policy considerations.

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In May 2019, the Ministry of Justice announced more funding for voluntary and private sector organisations to deliver rehabilitation services. These services will be delivered on behalf of the National Probation Service, which supervises both those receiving some types of non-custodial sentence and those released from prison into the community on probation. There are three main types of non-custodial sentence used in England and Wales: discharges, fines and community orders. Discharges are for the least serious types of offences (such as low-level drug offences) and do not impose a punishment beyond having a criminal record. Fines are financial penalties given for low-level types of offences (such as some motoring offences). Community orders are given for offences (such as some types of theft) that are not deemed serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence. Community orders are intended to address the cause of the person’s behaviour to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. Courts decide how many of thirteen different requirements (such as unpaid work, curfews or rehabilitation treatments) are included in a community order. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 states that all courts must have regard to the following purposes of sentencing: punishment of offenders, reduction of crime, reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public, and reparation to victim(s). Evidence suggests that community orders are effective at meeting some of these sentencing purposes, such as reducing reoffending and offering rehabilitation. Some data suggest that community orders may be more effective than custodial sentences at reducing reoffending. Policy considerations for the use of non-custodial sentences include that public opinion of these types of sentences is somewhat negative compared to custodial sentences.

Key Points


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing