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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

  • Non-custodial sentences include discharges, fines and community orders. Fines make up the vast majority of non-custodial sentences given.
  • The types of sentence given to individuals from different demographics (such as young people or women) vary. Young people aged 10–17 have two types of unique non-custodial sentences focussing on the sentencing principles of preventing further offending and supporting their welfare.
  • Research shows that reoffending rates tend to be lower for non-custodial sentences than for custodial sentences. However, there is a lack of clear evidence on which specific non-custodial interventions are effective at reducing reoffending, how these should be implemented, and for which offender groups the interventions should be used.
  • There is less evidence on the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences on other sentencing purposes, such as making up for any harm caused.
  • Policy considerations include that the public often views non-custodial sentences as too lenient compared to custodial sentences. This belief is reinforced by policies that put greater emphasis on imprisonment, despite evidence suggesting that more severe sentences do not act as a better deterrent against crime. However, research suggests that when the public is presented with real-life scenarios, their feeling that sentences are too lenient tends to lessen.


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:

  • College of Policing*
  • Crown Prosecution Service*
  • House of Commons Justice Select Committee
  • House of Commons Library*
  • Ministry of Justice*
  • Sentencing Council*
  • Youth Justice Board*
  • Burcu Borysik, Revolving Doors Agency
  • Jon Collins, Magistrates’ Association
  • Penelope Gibbs, Transform Justice
  • Alex Hewson, Prison Reform Trust*
  • Andrew Neilson, Howard League for Penal Reform*
  • Nick Smart, Probation Institute*
  • Dr Juste Abramovaite, University of Birmingham*
  • Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, University of Birmingham*
  • Dr Nick Cowen, University of Lincoln*
  • Professor Seena Fazel, University of Oxford
  • Catherine Heard, Birkbeck*
  • Professor Mike Hough, Birkbeck*
  • Professor Anthea Hucklesby, University of Leeds
  • Alex Lloyd, Royal Holloway
  • Professor George Mair, Liverpool Hope University*
  • Professor Fergus McNeil, University of Glasgow*
  • Helen Mills, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies*
  • Dr Jake Phillips, Sheffield Hallam University
  • Professor Julian Roberts, University of Oxford*
  • Dr Gwen Robinson, University of Sheffield*

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

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