• A POSTnote on alternative sentencing will examine how alternatives to imprisonment might help reduce prison overcrowding and re-offending.
  • It will present current alternatives as well as alternatives being trialled internationally.
  • Work on this POSTnote has been completed. You can read the full report online. Updated 27 January 2020

When an individual is convicted of a crime, they can be given an immediate custodial sentence, a suspended custodial sentence or a non-custodial sentence. Different sentences have various aims, which can include punishment, rehabilitation, compensation for victims or a reduction in future crime (by preventing reoffending or putting potential offenders off committing crime).

The prison population in the UK currently stands at around 92,500 and 58% of UK prisons report being overcrowded. Projections suggest that the prison population will rise to 98,000 by 2022. The average expenditure per prisoner per year in England and Wales is around £35,000, over three times the average public expenditure per year for a person living in the UK. However, Ministry of Justice figures suggest that some prison sentences may be ineffective, with 64% of adults who serve a short-term sentence (less than a year) committing another offence within 12 months of being released. This is compared to 29% of those serving custodial sentences of over a year and 30% of those who received non-custodial sentences.

If an individual is given an alternative sentence (suspended custodial sentences or non-custodial sentences), they are put under the supervision of the probation service. Alternative sentences may carry various obligations for the convicted individual, which can include being required to wear an electronic tag, participating in restorative justice (such as meeting victims or paying a restitution fine to a victim), taking part in a specified programme (such as mental health treatment, anger management programmes or treatment for drug or alcohol addiction), or carrying out community service. Emerging evidence suggests that some forms of alternative sentencing may reduce reoffending more than custodial sentences (especially short-term sentences) and could also be more cost-effective.

In 2019, the Prisons Minister expressed concern about the effectiveness of short-term custodial sentences and suggested that alternative sentences may prevent prison overcrowding and reduce reoffending. In May 2019, the Justice Secretary announced a new model for probation services, which included making £280 million available for the voluntary and private sectors to deliver innovative rehabilitation services.

A POSTnote in this area will present current alternative sentences in the UK and evidence on its effectiveness compared to custodial sentences, as well as reviewing other forms of alternative sentencing being trialled internationally.