'Murder a week' by criminals on probation

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The Independent Online

Criminals under the supervision of the probation service have committed more than one murder every week in the past two years, the Ministry of Justice said today.

Figures show offenders on probation were convicted of more than 1,000 serious violent or sexual offences in the two years from April 2006.

Those included 120 murders, 103 rapes and 80 kidnappings. But the figures are likely to rise as nearly 400 criminals have been charged with serious crimes and are still awaiting trial.

Criminals on probation received 44 manslaughter convictions in the two-year period, and 49 were convicted of arson attacks where they hoped to seriously hurt someone.

The number of murder convictions fell from 74 to 47 between last year and this, and rape convictions from 61 to 42. But 374 criminals, including 23 arrested in 2006, are still to be tried for their alleged crimes.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, the probation officers' union, said: "The number of offenders involved in further serious crimes is less than 0.5% of the total under supervision.

"Obviously we would like to get that figure at low as we can but we are dealing with people with mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions and further offences are inevitable."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "Any serious offence is of great concern and the Probation Service condemns the actions of any individual who is responsible for these offences.

"The Probation Service knows the impact crimes have on victims and their families and is constantly working towards having the best possible systems in place to supervise these offenders in the community and protect the public.

"The number of SFO (Serious Further Offence) convictions against all offenders supervised by the Probation Service was around 0.3% last year. We recognise that each of the offences has a victim, to whom we extend our sympathies.

"The vast majority of SFOs are committed by offenders given a community order by the court, having been convicted of less serious offences.

"In most cases, nothing in their previous offending histories has indicated that they would be capable of such serious offences."

"The increase in the number of SFOs is principally due to the clarification as to which offences must now be reported as serious further offences."

Separate figures released by the MoJ revealed the number of sentences handed out to all offenders for more serious crimes in the first three months of 2008 was up 1.9% on last year.

The figure of 80,600, for offences which could be tried at the Crown Court, is the largest quarterly number for the past two years.

Most of the increase was among drug sentences, which were up nearly 20%. Theft and handling stolen goods offences were up nearly 5%.

The average sentence dished out by the courts fell to less than 15 months, the provisional figures showed.

Shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said: "A murder a week committed by an offender who is meant to be under supervision is bound to be a matter of huge concern.

"It just underlines the need to look again at the arrangements for supervising offenders in the community who pose a risk to the public.

"If the public are to have confidence when offenders are serving part of their sentence in the community, then that risk must be minimised."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said the probation service was "hugely overstretched".

"If its workload increases, funding is cut and morale is shattered by endless Whitehall tinkering, then it is increasingly likely that people will slip through the net."