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The National Probation Service: the supervision of community orders in England and Wales

The National Audit Office reported today that the effective delivery of community order sentences could be improved to secure the full benefits of the scheme by the National Probation Service. Not all components of community orders are used in all probation areas. In addition, there is incomplete data on the cost of orders and the number of offenders who have not completed all aspects of their orders, and there are long waiting lists for some group rehabilitation programmes.

The NAO also found that community orders offer benefits such as enabling offenders to stay with their families and in work, and avoid additional pressure on the prison estate by reducing reoffending. Early data show the actual reconviction rate for community orders is 3.6 per cent better than the predicted reconviction rate. However, more research is needed on the effectiveness of some order requirements, such as supervision, in reducing reconviction.

Courts can choose from twelve requirements, such as unpaid work, group programmes or drug rehabilitation to create a specially designed community order. The NAO’s case file review found that in our sample, 94 per cent of orders were completed, breached or revoked. National data relating to the accredited programme requirement showed 97.5 per cent of programmes were completed, breached or revoked in 2006-07. The remaining offenders were unable to complete an order requirement before their order ended, either because of process and delivery reasons within Probation or the chaotic lifestyles of offenders. The National Offender Management Service accepts that it needs to establish a mechanism to report the percentage of community orders ending before all requirements have been completed.

Some community order requirements are not available or rarely used in some of the 42 Probation Areas. For example, alcohol treatment (which is largely funded by the National Health Service and for the delivery of which responsibility primarily rests with Primary Care Trusts) varies greatly in availablility. This is despite strong links between alcohol and offending behaviour. This means orders may not be addressing the underlying causes of offending behaviour as fully as they could.

Between 1995 and 2005 the number of community orders given by courts increased by more than 50 per cent. This contributed to the 68 per cent increase in the number of offenders managed by the Probation Service from 139,700 in 1995, to 235,000 at the end of 2006. However, the National Probation Service does not know with any certainty how many community orders it has the potential capacity to deliver within its resources, nor has it determined the full cost of delivering community orders.

“There is some evidence that community orders can reduce the likelihood of reconviction, but I am concerned by gaps in the National Probation Service’s knowledge about its management of these sentences. The Service needs to identify its capacity to deliver community orders and the associated costs, and the effectiveness of different order requirements in reducing reconviction. “As a matter of urgency, the Service should establish a mechanism to monitor and report the number of orders not completed in accordance with courts’ wishes.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

  1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  2. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 850 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.
  3. The NAO reviewed 302 offender case files across five local Probation Areas visited as part of the study. The sample findings are not statistically representative of the national picture but are indicative of what could be found nationally.

PN: 06/08