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A prison sentence is supposed to send a strong message to the individual and the wider community that crime is not tolerated, and that heavy sanctions apply to those who dare to break the law.
But a study published by BOCSAR last week suggests that those given a suspended sentence are no more likely to re-offend than inmates given a prison sentence of 12 months or less – calling into question the value of shorter term prison sentences.
The BOCSAR study aimed to determine whether prison is effective as a specific deterrent – in other words, whether it deterred individuals from reoffending.
It compared 3,960 matched offenders – one of whom had received a ‘suspended sentence’ of 2 years or less, and the other sent to prison for the first time for 12 months or less.
A suspended sentence is where a court imposes a term of imprisonment of two years or less – but ‘suspends’ the sentence and releases the person into the community on the condition that they enter into a good behaviour bond for the term of the sentence.
If the person breaches the bond by committing an offence or otherwise, they are brought back before the court to determine if there is any other alternative to full time imprisonment – if not, they are likely to be sent to prison.
To ensure a credible comparison, the researchers implemented controls to ensure, as far as practicable, that the offenders differed only in the type of penalty received.
After comparing thousands of individuals, the study found that:
‘In a matched comparison between groups of offender who got either a prison sentence or a suspended sentence, the subsequent time to re-offend did not depend on the type of sentence received. This suggests that there is no particular deterrent effect in receiving a prison sentence for people who had not previously been sentenced to prison.’
Essentially, the findings indicate that a suspended sentence was just as effective at deterring offenders as a short prison term.
The study concluded that:
‘From a practical point of view our findings suggest that sentencing courts contemplating imposing a suspended sentence of up to two years instead of full-time custody of 12 months (or less) need not be concerned about the possibility that imposing a suspended sentence will put the public at greater risk.’
The study also considered other research suggesting that in some cases, sending an individual to prison increases the likelihood of reoffending.
One such report by the UK’s Ministry of Justice found that:
‘Custodial sentences of less than twelve months were less effective at reducing re-offending than both community orders and suspended sentence orders.’
The study attributed these results to a lack of access to rehabilitation and development programs in prison – while offenders living in the community had better access to programs and services which could help them break the cycle of offending.
Besides the fact that short prison sentences appear to be ineffective, they are also very expensive for taxpayers. It costs around $260 per day to keep a person in prison – or $92,560 per year. And with prison populations across the state skyrocketing, many have questioned the value in incarcerating offenders for short periods at such a great expense to the community.
BOCSAR Director Dr Don Weatherburn says that this money could be better spent on community programs which rehabilitate offenders:
‘If they’re not such a serious offender, you’re not getting much out of having them in jail, you’re spending money and by the look of it, you’re not getting any return in terms of reduced reoffending, you’re probably better off putting them on a program that addresses the underlying causes of their offending, whether it be drug use or homelessness or whatever else it is.’
These views are backed by other experts, including criminologist Michael Benes, who says that those sentenced to short terms of imprisonment ‘actually come out worse than before.’
It is hoped that the courts respond to these findings by looking at other sentencing options when considering sending people to prison – and that governments take steps to improve access to rehabilitation services both within prison and in the community.