Do Suspended Sentences Reduce Reoffending?

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A recent study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) have compared the rates of reoffending for defendants who were sentenced to prison with those who instead received a suspended sentence.

Which one was the most effective? The results might surprise you!

What is a suspended sentence?

A suspended sentence in NSW is a type of prison sentence, but it does not involve the defendant actually spending time behind bars. This is because, as soon as the Magistrate or Judge imposes the sentence of imprisonment, it is suspended.

This means that as long as the defendant is of good behaviour for the duration of the bond, they are not sent to prison. But, if a defendant does re-offend, they will usually be sent to prison to serve the entirety of their sentence.

What were the results of BOCSAR’s research?

The latest statistics from BOCSAR, released on 2 December 2015, have demonstrated that those who received a suspended sentence were no more likely to reoffend than those who were sent behind bars.

The study compared 3,960 people, half of whom received a prison sentence of 12 months or less, and the other half who received a suspended sentence of two years or less (the maximum period of a suspended sentence being two years).

None of those in either category had previously received a custodial sentence, and the offences were matched as closely as possible. During the 36 month period where both categories of offenders were examined, 43% of those who sent to prison reoffended, and 42% of those on a suspended sentence reoffended.

Dr Don Weatherburn from BOSCAR stated that these results should assure magistrates and judges that imposing a suspended sentence instead of prison would not be putting the community at risk.

“Our findings, are important from a public policy perspective. It costs about 10 times more to keep an offender in prison for a day than to keep an offender on some form of community corrections order. The expenditure may well be justified in the cases of offenders who are dangerous and or who are serving long sentences”.

Are suspended sentences too soft?

Some have argued that a suspended sentence is not really a punishment at all, although the courts have said differently.

In the case of R v J C E, the prosecution argued that a suspended sentence was too lenient in the case at hand. They stated that a suspended sentence meant that “the respondent will be effectively unpunished” but the court found that this was “patently incorrect”.

A suspended sentence has been likened to a sword hanging over the head of the defendant until the period of the bond has expired – as a breach is highly likely to result in a prison sentence.

Of course, courts have recognised that a suspended sentence is not applicable in every case.

Are suspended sentences really effective?

It is important to note that if a person breaches a suspended sentence (i.e. commits a further offence during the time of the bond) there is little flexibility on the part of the court when it comes to sentencing – unless the offender has a very good reason for breaching the bond or the breach was trivial.

In fact, a study done by BOCSAR last year found that, counter-intuitively, suspended sentences were responsible for putting a high number of people in prison.

Dr Weatherburn believes this is because suspended sentences are being used instead of a more suitable punishment, such as community service or an Intensive Correction Order.

So while reoffending rates for suspended sentences and short prison terms are similar, the inappropriate use of suspended sentences is of concern.

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