We undertook a brief review* of the evidence about unpaid work and the effects of this intervention on reducing reoffending. The evidence we reviewed suggested that if delivered with an emphasis on its rehabilitative rather than punitive and reparative elements, unpaid work has the potential to reduce reoffending rates. However, a recent HM Inspectorate of Probation (2016) report suggests that the rehabilitative elements of unpaid work are often missed.
*Our initial review will be updated with a Rapid Evidence assessment which follows our established methodology.
What is it?
Unpaid work or ‘Community payback’ is the most frequently imposed requirement of a community sentence. It generally involves a young offender engaging in organised activities that benefit the local community, including litter picking, helping to maintain local areas and working with established voluntary groups. Participants are expected to undertake between 40 and 300 hours of unpaid work depending on their crime.
The idea that offenders could do unpaid work for the benefit of the community, or Community Service as it was then known, was first introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 1972. It has since gone through a number of evolutions and has been known as Enhanced Community Punishment, Community Payback, and is currently known as the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Since its launch in 2015, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme has been managed by one of 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies that were created for this purpose.
Should it work?
The primary sentencing purpose of unpaid work is punishment (Ministry of Justice, 2016). Unpaid work is regarded as punitive because it deprives service users of their leisure time. However, unpaid work can also be reparative because offenders are ‘paying back’ the community for the harm they have caused; and rehabilitative because offenders are given the opportunity to develop work-related skills and engage in a positive way with the beneficiaries of their work. Unpaid work also facilitates close working over an extended period between an offender and a member of probation staff and provides significant opportunities to engage positively with the offender. Other ways that unpaid work can reduce reoffending include:
• Incapacitation - undertaking unpaid work restricts the opportunities for service users to re-offend.
• Deterrence - the requirement to wear orange high visibility vests bearing the Community Payback logo (Ministry of Justice, 2016) may have a general deterrent effect by making punishment publicly visible and a specific deterrent effect for those obliged to wear them.
• Rehabilitation - McIvor (1992: 173) identifies a link between the offender’s positive experience of unpaid work and recidivism: “offenders whose experiences of community service had been particularly rewarding were less often reconvicted”. Unpaid work can help build offender confidence and provide the opportunity to learn new skills and gain work-related qualifications.
Does it work?
There is limited empirical research on the effectiveness of unpaid work and no systematic reviews have been conducted. Some quite dated research suggest that there is no difference in levels of recidivism between those sentenced to community service and those sentenced to prison (Zimring 1974; Pease 1985; Tonry & Lynch 1995). Spaans (1998) found that those sentenced to community sentences had a lower rate of reoffending than those sentenced to short prison sentences. A more recent study by Killias et al. (2000) reported that offenders randomly assigned to community service (unpaid work) recorded a significantly lower number of re-arrests than those assigned to short jail terms (2 weeks) but there was no significant difference on other recidivism measures (prevalence of new arrests, incidence of new convictions, or prevalence of new convictions).
Accounts of offenders suggest that recidivism is less likely amongst those sentenced to unpaid work. Killias et al. (2000) found that 46% of offenders sentenced to unpaid work believed that their sentence made further offending less likely, compared with 18% of those given a short jail sentence. Results from the Ministry of Justice’s Offender Management Community Cohort Study (OMCCS) indicate that 64% of service users agreed that doing unpaid work made them less likely to commit crime (Cattel et al., 2014 : 15). There is some evidence that projects with direct beneficiaries helped to boost offenders’ self-confidence, e.g. tending graves, working in charity shops (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2016: 38:39).
How strong is the evidence?
There are no systematic reviews on the effect of unpaid work on reoffending rates.
Is it worth it?
If delivered with an emphasis on its rehabilitative rather than punitive and reparative elements, unpaid work has the potential to reduce reoffending rates. However, a recent HM Inspectorate of Probation (2016) report suggests that all too often the rehabilitative elements of unpaid work are missed. “[D]espite the obvious potential for unpaid work to building offender confidence, gain new skills and contribute to a rehabilitative narrative, these positive aspects were rarely identified or promoted by the offender manager’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2016: 32). This seems unlikely to change in the short term because the rehabilitative element of unpaid work is not included in the Payment by Results mechanism.
Can it be implemented?
Unpaid work is the most frequently imposed requirement of a community sentence. In 2014, just over 70,000 orders made, which represents just over half of all community sentences. In the same year, there were just over 91,000 receptions to custody (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2016). There is no single model of delivery, and arrangements in local areas have evolved to meet local requirements. Whist this does mean that overall quality of the delivery of unpaid work varies, research has found that the basics of unpaid work are being consistently delivered across most sites, and that work of a high standard was being done at some sites in most areas (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2016).
What's missing from the evidence?
A systematic review of evidence would do much to clarify the impact of unpaid work and the strengths and weaknesses of this approach.