Offenders put on waiting lists for community service schemes

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OFFENDERS are having to go on waiting lists for punishment because the justice system cannot cope with the huge increase in the use of community penalties following the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act.

Judges are now handing out so many community service orders that there are not enough work schemes. Instead, offenders are being put on waiting lists, so it can take two to three times as long for them to complete their sentences.

Evidence to the National Association of Probation Officers from 15 Crown Court areas has revealed 'chaos and confusion' as judges, lawyers and probation officers implement the Act, aimed at diverting petty offenders from prison while serious offenders receive harsher penalties.

Community service orders were up by as much as 40 per cent, while ordinary probation orders were down by as much as 25 per cent. More young offenders were being sent to prison.

This appeared to be at the expense of special probation and charity day centres, seen as a successful way of diverting habitual young offenders from crime. Evidence from three such intensive centres suggests that judges - particularly since the debate on youth crime intensified last month - are now opting for custody.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said: 'There is a real worry that unless the courts start making more use of the centres, they may be closed down. These centres have an excellent reputation and have generally been regarded as the way ahead in the battle against offending behaviour.'

Day-centre clients are 17 per cent less likely to reoffend than those who have been in prison. It costs about pounds 72 a week to keep someone on probation for a year, including a 10-week course at a day centre, compared with about pounds 330 in prison.

Difficulties have already been exposed since the Act's introduction six months ago. Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, has proposed tough sentences for offenders aged 12-15, whom the Act had sought to keep from custody. He has agreed to review a clause that said previous convictions should not count in sentencing. He is also to review 'unit fines' - based on earnings - after suggestions that those in the middle income bracket were being hard hit.