This module is a resource for lecturers  




The overuse of imprisonment is a major issue worldwide (Penal Reform International, 2018). The international community has recognized this and made a concerted effort to promote the use of alternatives to imprisonment and the principles that should underpin them (see for example: UNODC, 2006a). The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures ( The Tokyo Rules) hold that criminal justice systems should provide "a wide range of non-custodial measures, from pretrial to post sentencing dispositions", "consistent with the nature of the gravity of the offence, the personality and background of the offender and with the protection of society and to avoid unnecessary use of imprisonment" (1990, Rule 2.3). Importantly, alternatives to imprisonment play a significant role in many different legal systems. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, the majority of penal sanctions imposed are, in fact, non-custodial, and the numbers of offenders subject to community sanctions has grown rapidly in recent years (McNeill, 2013; 2018a). The overarching aim of this Module is to critically assess the use and implementation of alternatives to imprisonment at different stages of the criminal justice process.

The Module is divided into five main sections. Topic One of the Module - Aims and significance of alternatives to imprisonment - will first introduce key terminology and consider why alternatives to imprisonment are important in contemporary criminal justice. It will then consider the main aims and objectives (as well as the potential risks) of alternative sanctions to imprisonment. Topic Two of the Module - Justifying punishment in the community - provides a critical overview of the general purposes of punishment, namely, retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and reparation. Topic Three - Pretrial alternatives - focuses on assessing decriminalization and diversion strategies that are aimed at limiting entry into the criminal process, as well as the imposition of alternative measures to pretrial detention. Topic Four - Post trial alternatives - investigates a range of non-custodial sanctions and measures that can be imposed, first at the sentencing stage of criminal proceedings, and secondly, at the post sentencing stage, such as early release from prison. Topic Five of the Module - Evaluating alternatives - examines the effectiveness of alternatives to imprisonment and highlights which groups may benefit most from non-custodial sanctions. This section closes with examples of innovative and good practice across different jurisdictions.


Learning outcomes

  • Develop a critical understanding of the main aims and significance of alternatives to imprisonment.
  • Identify and evaluate the five main justifications of punishment.  
  • Critically assess decriminalization policies and diversion strategies, as well as alternatives to pretrial detention, as key mechanisms to reduce the reach of the criminal justice system and the use of imprisonment.
  • Describe different types of non-custodial sanctions available at sentencing and post sentencing stages of the criminal process, and identify the key agencies involved in their implementation.
  • Critically examine the available evidence on the effectiveness of alternatives to imprisonment.
  • Identify vulnerable groups who may particularly benefit from alternatives to imprisonment, and to develop an understanding of innovative and promising practices in use around the world.
Next: Key issues
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