Probation to be scrapped for tougher regime

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The Independent Online
The probation order will be swept away under government proposals to toughen up community sentences. New "community orders" will replace existing probation and community penalties, with provision to make them more physically rigorous and mentally demanding.

Details, which are expected to include provision to make children as young as 10 do work such as picking up litter and cleaning graffiti, will be published in a Green Paper due to go for consultation next month. It is the latest initiative in efforts by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to convince the Conservative right wing of his law and order abilities.

Under government proposals, magistrates will be empowered to attach a range of demands and restrictions to the orders - from tagging and curfews to attendance at skill or drug or alcohol abuse centres or some kind of probation supervision.

However, removal of responsibility for devising treatment programmes from probation officers is likely to further demoralise a service facing unprecedented cuts and redundancies and shaken by the erosion of its social-work base. Already there are plans to replace the diploma in social work requirement in favour of on-the-job training. This spring, new national standards will further erase individual officers' discretion when dealing with those who breach terms of sentences. Ministers are also keen to bring in people from the armed forces and other non-social work backgrounds to give a tougher image.

The probation order has its roots in the temperance movement. In 1876, the Church of England Temperance Society appointed missionaries to courts to "reclaim" drunkards. Gradually their work was extended to other, less serious, offences, before being placed on a statutory basis with organised supervision under the Probation of Offenders Act 1907.

Last year probation supervision was one of the most successful penalties in terms of low reconviction rates. The number sentenced to probation and community penalties increased by 15 per cent to the highest level yet at nearly 100,000. Of those sentencedto probation supervision, 85 per cent completed the penalty without known reconviction or breaches. Of those facing community service, about 71 per cent fulfilled the terms of the penalty.

Yesterday Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Probation is a success story. Despite this, ministers are insisting on unnecessary change leading to demoralisation and a fear that statutory duties will not be fulfilled. These latest proposals are a very retrograde step - the more complex and inappropriate the order, the more people will fail and end up in already overcrowded jails."

Rosemary Thompson, Magistrates Association chairman, said: "The Home clearly giving magistrates considerably more discretionary power in sentencing. We would have to consult with justices' clerks and with chief officers of probation in orderto devise the best practice in choosing the most appropriate community penalty."