....In fact community disposals are a mixed bag. Some, such as the Intensive Alternative to Custody (IAC) operated in Manchester, require a lot of both offenders and supervisors. The results seem good: as of November, only 18% of the Manchester participants had had their IAC orders revoked for further offending. Other programmes push offenders to engage with their victims and try to make restitution: such “restorative justice” may reduce recidivism by as much as 14 points. Many, though, are poorly designed and enforced. Voters tend to take a dim view of their efficacy—though some polls suggest they do not rate prison much either.

....Will the reforms work? There are three worries. The first is that the politically driven insistence on making community sentences highly punitive may also make them less effective at getting offenders to confront and root out the causes of their offending. A few may even prefer watching television in prison. A second is that, in making justice swifter and involving victims and communities in sentencing, the government may be short-selling offenders’ right to the due process of law.

The third worry is that the reforms involve a large bet on payment by results before there is clear evidence in Britain or elsewhere on how to make it work in criminal justice. To the extent that the approach brings better providers of services into the mix, it must be right. Experience suggests, however, that getting criminals to go straight is neither easy nor cheap, whether it is done in prison or in the community. Only by focusing on more than cutting costs will this bold experiment succeed.

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