Judges and probation staff have agreed to cut the use of suspended jail sentences amid concerns over an expanding prison population.
Last month the Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Treacy wrote to sentencers, advising them to avoid recommending suspended sentences.
The Sentencing Council issued new guidelines to crack down on a culture of suspended sentences being seen as a tougher form of community order, but there has been no improvement.
Suspended sentences saw a ten-fold rise in the ten years to 2015 and a halving in community punishment orders.
The number of community orders fell from about 203,000 to 108,000 in the decade to 2015 while the number of suspended sentence orders rose from fewer than 4,000 to 52,000.
Lord Justice Treacy wrote: “Although the Imposition guideline has been in effect since 1st February 2017, the Council has some concerns that behaviour in respect of imposing these sentences has not changed.
“To support effective application of the Imposition guideline, I have agreed with the Director of the National Probation Service that Probation Officers will refrain from recommending SSOs in pre-sentence reports.
“This is because SSOs are not a standalone sentence; they are a custodial sentence and the court should only impose them having followed the structured sentencing exercise in the Imposition guideline.
“This does not mean the court should never suspend a custodial sentence, but this can only ever occur where the Court genuinely deems that a custodial sentence is entirely necessary and then conducts the weighted assessment as to whether suspension is possible.”
Treacy’s circular has been sent at a time when prisons remain overcrowded and are facing a rise in violence.
The prison population was 86,388 in August last year and it is expected to continue to rise to 88,000 by March 2022.
Penelope Gibbs, Director of Transform Justice, argued suspended sentences are effective and should be encouraged.
“Our sentencing framework is not ideal and the SSO is a fudge, but it has been preventing many people from being sent to prison for a short time. And those who are sentenced to an SSO with conditions reoffend less than those sentenced to community sentences,” she wrote.
Statistics from the Ministry of Justice shows reoffending rates for those given short custodial sentences stands at 60 per cent.
In comparison, 35 per cent of criminals handed community orders and 31 per cent of those given suspended sentences reoffended.
John Bache, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association, said: “Suspended sentences are not, and should not be seen to be, enhanced community orders and clear guidance on this was issued last year.
“Suspended prison sentences can, however, be an effective option and magistrates should not be deterred by this letter from using them when appropriate and in line with sentencing guidelines.”