Lauren Davison argues that we should support Labour's plans for reform of community sentencing to tackle antisocial behaviour and reduce reoffending
Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed has announced a tranche of policy aiming to bring victims closer to decision-making in the justice system, as well as beefing up community sentences. This is objectively a good thing.
However, the announcement received a less than positive response on Twitter. In part, this was because it was announced chiefly behind a paywall, with the Times headline saying Labour aimed to give antisocial behaviour victims the ability to “decide how perpetrators are punished”. The implication was that victims would choose the sentence given to offenders - which is not the case.
Instead, victims would get to choose the activity or work an offender carries out under their community service order. So for example, whether they scrubbed graffiti or tidied up wasteland. Additionally, victims would sit on community payback boards, which seek to oversee community sentences and make sure community work gets carried out, holding those in charge of overseeing unpaid work to account if they don’t enforce it.
Again, these are ideas which are intended to make a positive impact on the current system. It is particularly important that the next Labour government gets a grip on antisocial behaviour, which despite often being seen as low level or harmless, can have a detrimental impact on communities.
Antisocial behaviour is a term used to cover a range of offences, from fly-tipping to problem neighbours. There have been numerous cases of vulnerable people taking their own lives after suffering a campaign of antisocial behaviour directed at them, that wasn’t addressed by the authorities.
Existing methods of dealing with antisocial behaviour either aren’t well known - such as the Community Trigger Procedure - or authorities don’t have the resources to treat the issue with the seriousness it often deserves. In some cases, victims find themselves passed from pillar to post when trying to report an offence.
When perpetrators of antisocial behaviour are caught and punished, community service is one of the sentences available. These non-custodial sentences have a reoffending rate which is half that of prison sentences (approx 35%, compared to over 60% for prisons), but have been long criticised by the media and the political Right for being a “soft touch” as it doesn’t present enough of a “deterrent”. Equally, some of the mandated work was irrelevant to the crime, didn’t always get done and victims were kept at arm's length from the process. And this is what Labour’s new policy aims to change.
The fundamental part of this new approach would mean that victims and communities are integrated into the process and see justice being done visibly - without sending people to prison who don’t need to be there. With one of the highest prison populations in Europe, and with a prison estate in crisis, we don’t need to be adding to the high numbers. It will also help with diversion from prison - particularly for young people - as the evidence shows us that often young people go into prisons and come out worse than when they went in.
I’d also argue that there should be more provision of community payback which results in the offender gaining transferable skills, which could aid their employability in the future. We know that with prisons in their current state, it’s nearly impossible for offenders to learn new skills to be utilised after they’re released, and we know that getting a job after prison isn’t the easiest, especially if you have a criminal record. This hasn’t been spoken about by the Party, but is a common sense approach. The offender benefits, the community benefits, and the overall system benefits.
Making alternatives to prison more robust will ensure that there is greater public confidence in this sentence type. Those who want to see a more liberal, less draconian and prison-centric approach to punishment should be chomping at the bit to bolster non-custodial alternatives. Clearly, some of the criticism appears to be in bad faith, but for those who seek to reform the justice system, we should be backing Labour’s plans.
Lauren is Womens' and Equalities Officer for the Young Fabians, and is a Labour Activist and Criminologist in Stoke-on-Trent. She tweets at @LaurenD2212