Government moves to ensure probation is not a 'soft option'

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Probation chiefs warned yesterday that up to 48,000 offenders a year could face automatic prison sentences for failing to turn up for community service, under new government proposals.

As part of the new Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, magistrates will be obliged to to jail any offenders who twice fail to turn up for their community punishment appointments unless there are "exceptional circumstances".

But the Association of Chief Officers of Probation (Acop), which held its annual meeting in London yesterday, believes thousands of petty offenders - including people with learning difficulties or undiagnosed mental health problems - could be sent to prison though they pose little threat to the public.

Acop's chairman, Geoff Dobson, said courts needed to retain greater discretion, including the right to impose alternative punishments, such as a fine.

He said: "Our research shows that half of all young offenders aged between 18 and 20 will miss two appointments within three months. They would all go into custody even though these are the very people we need to persevere with."

The crackdown was ordered by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, after he discovered many probation officers were taking no action against offenders who failed to turn up - even though they were required to return them to court if they were absent three times.

Acop claims that the Probation Service has already responded to Mr Straw's criticisms. Yesterday it produced an audit, which showed that 21 per cent of offenders were absent three times in the first three months of their orders, and 62 per cent of these were sent back to court - compared to a rate, six months ago, of 44 per cent who were sent back to court.

But the Probation Service still has some way to go to achieving Mr Straw's target of 90 per cent sent back to court and some probation officers may be even more reluctant to do so now that they are facing automatic jail.

The Home Office said the new measures were needed to ensure that community sentences were not seen as a "soft option". A spokeswoman said: "If community sentences are going to be effective then they have to be strongly enforced."