Howard to tighten probation terms

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard is preparing to introduce a "one strike and you're out" policy for offenders sentenced to lenient punishments outside prison. Any criminal who breaks the terms of a magistrate's probation or community service order once will be sent back to court and face the prospect of imprisonment.

The probation officers' union condemned the Home Secretary's decision and warned that it would put "unbearable strain" on the criminal justice system. It predicted that 8,000 extra petty criminals a year would end up in overcrowded prisons as a result of the initiative.

Home Office sources said the move, to be announced when Mr Howard releases new community penalties in the spring, is designed to stop non-custodial prison sentences being a soft option.

Last year, about 115,000 offenders received community punishments. Those on probation orders had to meet probation officers regularly and were in many cases compelled to attend training programmes and drug or alcohol treatment courses. Criminals sentenced to community service had to do up to 240 hours of unpaid work.

At present, a criminal has to break the terms of his order three times before he is sent back to court. Senior probation officers can intervene and stop a new court hearing if they think there are special circumstances. Last year, about 7,000 criminals were sent back to the courts for breaching the terms of their orders - 2,000 received jail sentences.

Mr Howard plans to remove all discretion from probation officers . Home Office sources said that court orders must be taken seriously. If they were broken, the courts must decide what to do.

As part of his package of measures, the Home Secretary is also expected to make community punishment more physically rigorous. There are also proposals, still under discussion, to "incapacitate" persistent juvenile criminals by giving them sentences out of all proportion to their crimes.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said his union's research showed that34,000 criminals missed one appointment with a probation officer last year and had no reasonable excuse. They would all be sent back to court under Mr Howard's proposals.