Criticism blights launch of new crime legislation: The Criminal Justice Act which comes into force today has been greeted with concern over ambiguities

ONCE HERALDED as the most forward-thinking legislation to emerge from the Home Office for years, the Criminal Justice Act comes into force today amid widespread criticism from those who must make it work and doubts over the Government's commitment to some of its key provisions.

Probation officers are to boycott parts of the Act in protest at a 'derisory' pay offer of 0.25 per cent - 50p a week - for the extra work it involves. And judges - including Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice - magistrates and police officers have all voiced concerns over ambiguities and the legislation's impact.

Speaking at the Association of Chief Police Officers' autumn conference in Preston, Albert Pacey, chairman of its crime committee, warned that the Act could have 'an impact on crime levels' by increasing the number of offenders on parole who had to be supervised by an underfunded probation service.

There was also no efficient mechanism in place for the police to be kept updated on the identities of those released on parole.

Officers also expressed concerns about having to provide full details of convictions for courts rather than the brief list currently supplied by police. Despite Home Office assurances that they would not be swamped by new demands, Mr Pacey said: 'We cannot supply this kind of information at the moment.' More worrying for penal reformers is the Home Secretary's approach. In a change of mind, Kenneth Clarke has agreed to go on radio and defend the Act today, but sources say he is 'intellectually unconvinced' by parts of the legislation which he inherited from three previous Home Secretaries.

While its 'tough and tender' philosophy reflected the innovative approach of Douglas Hurd, both David Waddington and Kenneth Baker felt the need to talk up the tough side to appease the Tory law and order lobby.

Mr Clarke is likely to do the same when he faces the difficult task of selling the Act to next week's Conservative Party conference against a background of burgeoning crime. How will he be able to convince his grass roots, for example, that a recidivist offender should be kept from prison?

For the Act's twin-track approach could mean that jail is reserved for those committing the gravest crimes, while anyone guilty of minor offences - even if they have a long criminal record - should be supervised by the probation service or sent for treatment.

The Act also introduces new arrangements for the early release of prisoners, replacing the present parole provisions. All offenders will serve half their sentence, rather than applying for parole after a third of it. Remission will be abolished meaning that criminals can be sent back to jail if they offend after being released.

Maximum fines in magistrates' courts will be increased from pounds 2,000 to pounds 5,000, and will be linked to the offender's disposable income. Thus, the rich will pay more than the poor for similar offences.

Adding to fears that it could add pressures to families under the strain of unemployment and poverty, parents are liable to pay financial penalties for crimes committed by their children.

The Act also requires courts to obtain social or medical reports on almost all offenders before prison sentences can be imposed. And it eases the strains on child witnesses by allowing them to give evidence via a video link.

It is a package that has encouraged reformers. Vivien Stern, the director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said it was a 'courageous attempt to inject greater coherence and principle into sentencing practice'.

But there are problems. In order for the policies to work, they need to be 'sold' to the judiciary and magistrates, according to Paul Cavadino, of Nacro. Reformers say this has not happened and, as a result, judges are worried about the Act. At a press conference on Tuesday, Lord Taylor said provisions in the Act that minimised the importance of previous convictions could give rise to public misgivings. He also highlighted concerns over the section which tells judges to ignore previous convictions while at the same time stating that a criminal history might be seen as an 'aggravating factor'.

However, to the relief of penal reformers, Lord Taylor said he wanted judges to take account of the new release arrangements. Thus, prison terms should be shorter since offenders will serve a higher proportion of their sentence. If the judiciary fails to heed his words the prison population - already one of Europe's highest - will increase by estimates of up to 1,500.

The action by probation officers will add to problems dogging the Act. Probation staff have contrasted Home Office statements saying that they are moving 'centre stage' with the 0.25 per cent offer. And in a recent ballot they voted by three to one to boycott much of the new work aimed at broadening punishment in the community, which will be difficult to implement without their co-operation.

The Home Office response has been tough, threatening to deduct 15 per cent from the salaries of any probation officers who do not co-operate. This is likely to lead to conflict at the beginning of an Act that was meant to foster better co-operation between the different groups operating the criminal justice system.

The Children's Society yesterday condemned courts in Wales for sending children as young as 14 to adult prisons, in spite of government plans to phase out child remands to prison.

(Photograph omitted)

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