Ministers have launched a new drive to divert criminals with drug, alcohol and mental health problems away from prison.
The Government wants to see more vulnerable offenders given community orders requiring them to undertake treatment instead of being handed “ineffective” short-term custodial sentences.
As part of a pilot scheme in five areas, justice and health services have signed up to a new protocol.
Under the initiative, psychologists are present in courts to assess offenders who are eligible for a community order.
Local panels comprised of justice and health officials provide information to magistrates and judges so they can determine whether the individual should be required to receive treatment for mental health, alcohol or drug issues.
The Ministry of Justice said the measures have increased the confidence of sentencers, resulting in more Community Sentence Treatment Requirements (CSTRs) being issued.
CSTRs require the subject to engage with local health services under the terms of their sentence. Failure to attend could represent a breach.
Government research has pointed to a reduction in re-offending among individuals who undergo drug, alcohol or mental health treatment.
Despite this, the use of treatment requirements as part of community sentences remains “very low”, the MoJ said.
Since the pilot sites went live at various points in late 2017 and early 2018 – in Birmingham, Plymouth, Sefton on Merseyside, Milton Keynes and Northampton – initial figures suggest that more than 400 CSTRs have been issued.
Results from the trial sites will be assessed ahead of a potential wider rollout of the scheme in England.
Speaking in Northampton on Friday, Justice Secretary David Gauke will say: “We are all clear that we need to do more to support vulnerable offenders in the community.
“I want to improve confidence in community sentences, and early evidence from these sites has shown that treatment requirements can have a significant impact in improving rehabilitation and addressing the underlying causes of offending.
“We need to do more to raise awareness and increase confidence in treatment requirements and I look forward to exploring how these sites progress.”
The programme forms part of the Government’s efforts to boost the number of eligible offenders given community penalties.
Latest official figures show the use of the sentences is decreasing across all offence and age groups, falling by 8% last year and by 52% over the last decade.
District Judge Richard Clancy, lead judge at the Complex Case Court in Merseyside, which is part of the Sefton pilot, welcomed the new initiative.
He said: “To have a trial scheme where the court has on-site psychologists capable of testing suitability of a defendant for a mental health treatment requirement, so that such a community order can be made by the judge on the same day without need for adjournment, is a remarkable and innovative move which I fully support.”
Mental Health and Inequalities Minister Jackie Doyle-Price said: “All too often offenders are not able to access the support and treatment they need – this type of action could prove to be the turning point that helps to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.”