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Answering the Question of 'Community or Custody?'

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This time last month the shocking outburst of criminal disorder in British cities had just seemed to have peaked. In the aftermath, attention turned to how the criminal justice system was going to respond to the riots. Some of the sentences handed down, in the frenetic effort to deal with over a thousand cases, were deeply controversial - causing concern in surprising places, even among those normally considered 'hardliners'. However, if the reaction to the riots sparks a more thorough and thoughtful national conversation about sentencing in this country, then we may get closer to grasping the nettle and fixing what Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has called a "broken penal system".

What should probably most disturb us is that the majority of adults charged during the riots had already been convicted and, supposedly, rehabilitated and released by the criminal justice system. That they, and we, had been so obviously failed should cause us to ask the question of whether we are taking the right approach to these sorts of repeat offenders.

The "Community or Custody?" National Enquiry has been trying to answer that question by looking into how low-level, persistent offending is being dealt with across the country. When the Enquiry was set up by Make Justice Work 12 months ago, it was against the backdrop of a prison system which was even then full to bursting and unable to make a dent on atrocious reoffending rates, where two thirds of those released from short prison sentences went on to commit another crime within a year. We publish our findings at a time when shock and disgust at the riots has emboldened certain defenders of prison - at all times and at any cost - to ignore the dysfunctionality of the current approach and demand: more of the same, and for longer.

I could not have predicted how firmly and unanimously my fellow Enquiry panel members would have rejected that mentality. The Enquiry is chaired by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph, and led by Lord Ian Blair, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; Dame Anne Owers, former Chief Inspector of Prisons; Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Victim Support; Paul McDowell, Chief Executive of NACRO and former governor of Brixton Prison; and John Thornhill, Chair of the Magistrates' Association. They are leading figures from the institutions which catch the offenders, sentence them, imprison them, rehabilitate them and look after their victims - and the certainty of their combined verdict is startling.

Over the last twelve months we have gathered first-hand evidence from victims, offenders, judges, magistrates, police and probation officers, prison governors and voluntary and private sector providers delivering intensive community sentences across the country. We have been astonished and impressed by the rigour and impact of much of the work we have seen. It is clear that community sentences are demanding, and that many offenders find them much tougher than prison. Not only have we witnessed programmes delivering real reductions in reoffending, we learnt that in the right circumstances they are able to cut crime at a fraction of the cost of prison.

Making those successes the norm has to be the answer to our current dilemma. It can only happen if intensive community sentences demonstrate that they are truly effective and tough alternatives to custody and so worthy of public confidence. Our Final Report makes several recommendations to ensure this outcome. It also requires strength from our government in both holding the line against reactionary voices and avoiding the temptation to do the 'rehabilitation revolution' on the cheap - the savings will more than make up for the minimal costs of doing this right.

Debate on this issue at the upcoming political party conferences is likely to be fierce - and there is real policy being made right now which requires urgent attention. The Sentencing Bill that was published before the riots this summer is progressing through parliament at the moment, and it should not waste the chance to make the link between community sentences and the judiciary stronger and make a clear commitment to reducing the wasteful use of short term prison sentences. Ken Clarke recognising the system is broken is a first step, but our National Enquiry has seen how it can be fixed - his government must not miss this critical opportunity to fix criminal justice in this country once and for all.