Key findings

  • Intensive community programmes have varied greatly in their aims, their structures, and in the individuals targeted.
  • Evidence of effectiveness in terms of reoffending is mixed. An impact evaluation of the Intensive Alternatives to Custody pilot programme in England and Wales in 2009-2011 found a significant reduction in frequency of reoffending.
  • Process evaluations of the Intensive Alternatives to Custody programme reported generally positive responses from sentencers, probation staff and service users.


Community orders are currently made up of one or more of 13 requirements, as decided by the court. There are three community order sentencing levels based on offence seriousness, with the highest level covering those offences which only just fall below the custody threshold or where the custody threshold is crossed but a community order is more appropriate in the circumstances. In these situations, more intensive sentences which combine two or more requirements may be appropriate. The Sentencing Council guidance states that suitable requirements might include the following:

Suitable requirements for community orders (high-level)
Diagram displays boxes which read 'appropriate rehabilitative requirements', '150-300 hours of unpaid work', 'A curfew requirement' and 'An exclusion requirement'.

Combining requirements in this way has also been attempted through a range of intensive community programmes. These are well established in the USA and have been used in various other jurisdictions. In England and Wales, there have been a number of attempts at developing such programmes. Some local initiatives have been further developed and continued, e.g. the Greater Manchester Intensive Community Order (ICO) programme.

It is not clear from published statistics how many individuals are currently supervised on a high intensity community order or specific intensive community programme.

Summary of the evidence

Intensive programmes have varied greatly in their programme structure, and there is no standard as to how much more supervision is required before a programme is deemed intensive. In some instances, a doubling of the number of contacts from one to two a month seems to have sufficed, whereas in other instances, an expectancy of several contacts per day has been established.

Intensive Probation Services (IPS) have been used extensively across the USA, but evidence of their effectiveness has been mixed and inconclusive. This could be in part due to the variability of the programmes but also in the aims and targeted individuals. Not all have been designed as prison-diversion programmes; some have been used to facilitate early-release, some have been implemented as more general probation-enhancement programmes, and others, it has been argued, to more easily detect infractions and non-compliance.

The Intensive Alternatives to Custody pilot programme

This Intensive Alternatives to Custody (IAC) pilot programme ran from 2008/09 to 2010/11 in seven areas across England and Wales. The aim of the IAC order was to divert prolific offenders from short custodial sentences. The IAC provided sentencers with a community-based alternative comprising suitable intensive supervision, control/punishment, rehabilitation, and compliance elements. Each area tailored the programme slightly to their own local priorities.

Process evaluations of this programme found that sentencers welcomed the combined punitive and rehabilitative aspects of IAC as an alternative to short-term custody. The proposal of an IAC order was better received and deemed to be more appropriate when delivered in the format of a standard pre-sentence report, rather than a fast-delivery report. There were concerns in some areas with sentencers ‘up-tariffing’ by combining IAC requirements with a suspended sentence order.

Find out more about court reports

Probation staff and partners were positive about its perceived efficacy. Strong partnership relationships appeared critical to the perceived success of the IAC orders. Many of the persistent offenders on the pilots were also positive of the programme, despite initially feeling overwhelmed. The analysis suggested that those individuals most suited to an IAC order had:

  • chaotic lifestyles
  • multiple needs
  • previous custodial sentences
  • motivation to change.

An individual’s progress had a marked impact on the process of breach. Where engagement with the order as a whole was good and positive work was being undertaken then revoking or re-sentencing was unlikely. Where there was little evidence of engagement then a custodial sentence was more likely.

The impact evaluations suggested no difference in the one-year proven reoffending rate between IAC orders and short-term custody, and between IAC orders and other court orders. However, there was a positive impact in terms of the frequency of reoffending, relative to both short term custody and other court orders.

Other evidence

Cost-benefit analyses have repeatedly suggested that even the most intensive community supervision is more cost effective than short-term custody.

There is evidence from the USA that IPS is more effective when combined with a reduced probation officer caseload, to enable more dedicated time and resources. This appears to be associated with higher quality supervision, rather than just an increase in the quantity, alongside the provision of appropriate treatment services.

Key references

Bartels, L. (2014). Literature review on intensive supervision orders: A report prepared for the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate. ACT Justice and Community Services Directorate.

Clark, R., McArt, D., Taylor, E. and Wakeman, M. (2012). Process Evaluation of Manchester and Salford Intensive Alternatives to Custody Pilot, Ministry of Justice Research Summary 6/12. London: Ministry of Justice.

Merrington, S. (2006). ‘Is more better? The value and potential of intensive community supervision’, Probation Journal, 53(4), pp. 347–360.

Mews, A. and Coxon, C. (2014). Updated analysis of the impact of the Intensive Alternatives to Custody pilots on re-offending rates, Ministry of Justice Analytical Summary. London: Ministry of Justice.

Moore, R. , Gray, E. , Roberts, C. , Taylor, E. and Merrington, S. (2006). Managing Persistent and Serious Offenders in the Community: Intensive Community Programmes in Theory and Practice. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Taylor, E., Clarke, R. and McArt, D. (2014). ‘The Intensive Alternative to Custody: ‘Selling’ sentences and satisfying judicial concerns’, Probation Journal, 61(1), pp. 44-59.

Wong, K., O’Keeffe, C., Ellingworth, D. and Senior, P. (2012). Intensive Alternatives to Custody: Process evaluation of pilots in five areas, Ministry of Justice Research Series 12/12. London: Ministry of Justice.

Wong, K., O’Keeffe, C., Ellingworth, D., Wilkinson, K., Meadows, L., Davidson, J. and Bird, H. (2012). Process Evaluation of Derbyshire Intensive Alternatives to Custody Pilot, Ministry of Justice Research Summary 7/12. London: Ministry of Justice.

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Last updated: 17 May 2021