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June 8, 2011

"Short jail sentence preferable to community service, say prisoners"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article from The Guardian, which reports on an interesting and important research report coming from the UK.  Here are the details:

Prisoners prefer to do a short stretch behind bars than complete a community sentence because they consider it less of a punishment, according to research by prison governors and penal reformers.

The majority of prisoners said they found short jail terms meant little to do and long periods in their cells.  Many were demotivated by long waiting lists for courses and limited job opportunities in prison.  But the research, commissioned by the Prison Governors' Association (PGA) and the Howard League for Penal Reform showed many offenders felt a short prison sentence was easier to complete than a community sentence, which some considered more of a punishment.

The study, carried out by Dr Julie Trebilcock of Imperial College London, was based on 44 interviews with inmates serving 12 months or under at three different prisons, and 25 interviews with staff.  The staff interviews revealed many to be upset at the damaging impact of short sentences on prisoners' lives, especially where they had lost homes or jobs and when it had led to family breakdown.

The report, No Winners: the reality of short term prison sentences, says there are two distinct groups of prisoners -- the first-timers and the revolving-door prisoners -- who have distinct attitudes and needs while inside....

The study concludes: "Some highlighted that it was hard to comply with community sentences because they had to manage their day-to-day lives and the factors that had often led them to offend (most commonly drug use). Some also stated that they had previously had poor relationships with probation officers and that it was too easy to be breached on a community sentence. This led many prisoners to state a preference for a short-prison sentence over a community sentence on the basis that they are easier to complete."

Frances Crook, of the Howard League, said the study underlined that community penalties sought to change behaviour, while overcrowded prisons were failing to offer lasting solutions to crime.  Eoin McLennan-Murray, PGA president, said the study made a convincing case, "which argues at best for the abolition of short prison sentences and at worst for a dramatic reduction in their use".

A press release with the reoprt and a link to its executive summary can be found at this webpage.

June 8, 2011 at 04:28 PM | Permalink


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I long ago learned the aversion to community service during my stint as a rookie prosecutor in misdemeanor court. Defendants would whine about community service more than anything. Of course, the ones who complained the loudest didn't actually have a job, so I could never figure out what they had to do instead.

Posted by: josh | Jun 8, 2011 9:21:15 PM

Prison is also used to get away from the streets when someone is after the prisoner, as a safe haven.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 9, 2011 2:12:46 AM

This should lay bare the apologist claim that our penchant for incarceration destroys families and communities-when given a choice, most offenders would prefer to do time than embark on a rehabilitative regimen.

My experience leads me to believe the percentage of offenders in this country that would prefer prison time is even higher.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 9, 2011 10:44:51 AM

actually mjs it's more proof that ALMOST everyone now knows that probation/parole is nothing but a GOTCHA used by law enforcment as a way to avoid a REAL TRIAL on the merits!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 9, 2011 12:25:52 PM

Go rodsmith! Might the preference for a determinate prison term instead of a mushy community-service sentence also support the notion that the certainty, rather than the severity, of punishment is what deters?

Posted by: def atty | Jun 9, 2011 3:34:15 PM

Rodsmith: You know not of what you speak.

Probation officials in most states would confirm that there are a series of intermediate punishments used before most technical violators are returned to prison. Three, four, even five opportunities are common.

In fact, some judges would rather terminate a probation than incarcerate a probation violator!

Posted by: mjs | Jun 9, 2011 5:43:26 PM

Actually, in California, even minor parole violations (failure to report, dirty test) will get you sent back to prison. Even your first one. That's why 70% of parolees here end up back in prison, most within the first year or so of being paroled.

Posted by: SRS | Jun 9, 2011 6:54:55 PM

i'm with you SRS it's not been that long since florida was doing VOP's for finding newspaper adds in probationers posession.

or even GQ magazine in one case.

dont' tell me mjs that it's not a gotcha program to get around the REAL trial the state knews it cant' win! When there really is NO evidence and No witnesses. Just We think! and we're pretty sure being all the state can say!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 9, 2011 10:30:57 PM

as for not knowing what i'm talking about. LOL a big part of the members of my family work in law enforcment from beat cops on the street to prison guards and so on. i've heard it all.

since i'm the one they all come to talk to about the newest bit of stupidity they have seen either from the people they have to deal with or their own bosses!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 9, 2011 10:32:55 PM

mjs --

"This should lay bare the apologist claim that our penchant for incarceration destroys families and communities-when given a choice, most offenders would prefer to do time than embark on a rehabilitative regimen."

As you have shown before, based on extensive experience and clear-eyed vision, real rehabilitation depends on a change of heart, and that is precisely what we so seldom see.

I wish it were otherwise, but you can't re-make the world by wishing.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 9, 2011 11:09:06 PM

I think of community service as an alternate way of paying fines. If the community service is supervised the results are acceptable.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 10, 2011 8:15:34 AM

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