Everything you need to know about suspended sentences

Work with offenders on new research from the Sentencing Academy

New research published today by the Sentencing Academy investigates a little discussed sentencing option, the Suspended Sentence Order (SSO), which is the sentence passed in about one in twenty cases convicted through the courts. A total of 39,885 SSOs were made in 2019.

The Academy discusses the central challenge of the SSO. On the one hand, it has the potential, if appropriately constructed and adequately supervised, to reduce the use of short prison sentences. On the other hand, if used too frequently or for the wrong kinds of offences or offenders, SSOs may undermine public confidence in sentencing or even increase the use of custody.

About the Sentencing Academy

The Sentencing Academy, which is funded by the Dawes Trust, is a research and engagement charitable incorporated organisation dedicated to developing expert and public understanding of sentencing in England and Wales. It encourages the Government to implement effective sentencing practices and informs public debate about sentencing, acting as a bridge between those with expert knowledge of sentencing, the public, and policy makers.

About Suspended Sentence Orders

The Suspended Sentence Order (SSO) is a custodial sentence option available to magistrates and judges in England and Wales. Providing an offence has crossed the “custody threshold”, and that the sentence to be imposed is not less than 14 days and not greater than two years in duration, the SSO provides courts with an option to suspend a sentence of imprisonment, allowing the offender to serve their sentence of imprisonment in the community rather than in custody.

The SSO can be imposed unconditionally, or the magistrate or judge can impose any number of 15 requirements, either alone or in combination. The cost of the SSO is far less than a term of immediate imprisonment, which may well contribute to its popularity. The 15 requirements are wide and varied:

  1. Unpaid work requirement
  2. Rehabilitation activity requirement
  3. Programme requirement
  4. Prohibited activity requirement
  5. Curfew requirement
  6. Exclusion requirement
  7. Residence requirement
  8. Foreign travel prohibition requirement
  9. Mental health treatment requirement
  10. Drug rehabilitation requirement
  11. Alcohol treatment requirement
  12. Alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement
  13. Attendance centre requirement
  14. Electronic compliance monitoring requirement
  15. Electronic whereabouts monitoring requirement

The use of the SSO has changed little over the past decade, representing approximately 4-5% of offenders sentenced each year across all courts. However, whilst its use has remained stable overall across all offences, the proportionate use of SSOs in relation to the more serious indictable offences has increased over the past decade. This has contributed to a proportionate increased use of custodial sentences for indictable offences during this period.

The Sentencing Council Definitive Guideline from 2017 emphasised that an SSO should only be imposed on offenders where the custody threshold had been crossed – in other words where the serious of the offence warrants a prison sentence. However, the limited available research reviewed by the Sentencing Academy suggests that the SSO is sometimes imposed in cases where the custody threshold has not been crossed.

This can have a ‘net-widening’ effect whereby those who should receive a Community Order or lesser sentence are, in fact, receiving a more severe sanction – the SSO. It goes without saying that when someone breaches the conditions of an SSO, they are likely to be re-sentenced to custody.

The Sentencing Academy says that more research is required in this area, but suggests that sentencers may be increasingly likely to pass a Suspended Sentence Order rather than a community order. There is evidence to support this suggestion. In 2009, community orders were the most common of the three principal sentencing options for more serious offences.  For all sanctions for offences at the custody threshold, half (50%) were community orders, one third (33%) were immediate custody and one in six (17%) was an SSO. If we go forward a decade to 2019, the last year with typical (not affected by the pandemic) data available, the proportion of  community sentences had dropped to 39%, with that reduction accounted for by a rise in the proportion of sentences to immediate custody (also 39%) and of SSOs (up to 22%).

The drop in the proportion of community sentences has been attributed to a range of reasons, with a loss of sentencer confidence the one factor most commonly discussed.

The Government’s latest prison numbers projections suggest that there may be 20,000 more people in prison in five years’ time; it seems likely that some of this increase may be attributable to people who have breached their SSO.