How will these resources help you?

In the UK more people receive community sentences (often described by exam specifications as ‘non-custodial sentences’) than prison sentences. They are also set to be used more in the future as increasing amounts of evidence show that short custodial sentences have very high reoffending rates. But are they a better alternative to custodial sentences, or do they raise their own sets of problems for offenders and society? I use extracts from these texts with higher pupils (in Scotland) to introduce the need for more discussion about how we treat those offenders who we choose not to send to prison.

Focusing our attention

Pervasive Punishment: Making Sense of Mass Supervision

by Fergus McNeill, published by Emerald Publishing, (2018), 9781787564664

McNeill attempts a modern approach to an academic text with a narrative motif at its centre. He examines the current status of community sentences with a particular focus on Scotland and the commonly used ‘community payback order’. He looks at the purposes of punishment associated with community sentences, arguing that in our bid to present them as a reformative option we often overlook their retributive aspects and the harm that they can cause. The main achievement of this book is presenting the community sentence as a central aspect of criminal justice in the Scottish context.

Community sentences can be robust and meaningful

The Cinderella complex: Punishment, society and community sanctions

by Gwen Robinson, published by Punishment and Society, 18 (1), pp. 95–112, (2016), (2016)

In this article Robinson notes that community sentences have been neglected in criminology, as a neglected 'Cinderella' stepsister to prison in the criminal justice family, partly because they are often described in terms of what they are not, as ‘non-custodial sentences’. She aims to redress this and sets about a critical examination of community sentences as a viable and tough option. She labels the common perception of them as ‘weak’ or ‘feminine’ as a patriarchal misunderstanding.

We need to be careful about rights

Community Sanctions and European Human Rights Law

by Dirk van Zyl Smit, in Principles and Values in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, edited by Lucia Zedner and Julian V. Roberts, published by Oxford University Press, (2016), 9780199696796

My pupils find Smit's arguments fascinating, partly because he rejects the assumption that community sentences are a ‘soft option’. He is broadly positive about community sentences, arguing that according to European human rights law prison should only be a last resort, and that even community sentences can challenge or violate rights. This chapter provides a modern version of a deontological approach, for example discussing whether we can really be upholding offenders’ dignity if we make them wear 'high-viz' jackets printed with ‘community payback’.

Stop sending teenagers and drug victims to prison

Justice on Trial: Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point

by Chris Daw, published by Bloomsbury, (2021), 9781472977854

Daw’s absorbing text provides a comprehensive criticism of many aspects of criminal justice in the UK today. One of his main arguments is that the current prison system simply doesn’t work and a community sentence would be more appropriate for offenders in almost all cases. As an experienced KC, Daw has a wide range of anecdotes to draw on to back up the statistics. My students find his style and arguments particularly engaging. His chapters on the criminalisation of children and why drugs should be legalised are especially effective in starting debates. 

Audiovisual clip

What Point Prison? The Debate

published by BBC Radio 4, (2016)

A debate centering on the reason for prisons as a punishment for crime in society.

Further materials

Locked up and vulnerable: When prison makes things worse by Melissa Hogenboom, published by BBC Future, (2018) Read this article
Reducing reoffending: Community sentencing, published by Scottish Government, (2019) Access this resource
Susan Woodshore is a teacher in Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Ecclesiastical History and enjoys creating new educational resources across religion, ethics and philosophy.

Text © Susan Woodshore, 2023.