Tough regime facing non-prison offenders: Home Office plans could lead to thousands more being jailed

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The Independent Online
A MUCH tougher regime for offenders who escape jail with either probation or community service orders is being planned by the Government, the Independent has learnt.

The achievement of strict work targets, penalising lateness and abusive language, and the ready return to court for those who flout the rules, are being envisaged by Home Office ministers, who want a much greater element of 'punishment' in non-custodial sentences.

The plans, contained in an internal Home Office paper, are thought by the probation service to be likely to lead to thousands more people being jailed every year.

The move reflects the belief of some right-wing ministers that community and probation orders are considered a 'soft option', and public concern that persistent criminals, such as joyriders, receive lenient sentences. Cases such as that of the financier Roger Levitt, who was sentenced to 180 hours of community service after pleading to fraudulent trading when his company collapsed with debts of pounds 34m, have caused an outcry. However, probation officers argue this is a backward step as their service is far cheaper than prison and more successful at preventing re-offending.

Revised standards for probation orders are expected in the autumn. The proposals include penalties for failing to report for community work or probation, or breaking Home Office regulations, including the use of abusive language.

In future, people will receive written warnings and ultimately a jail sentence. Probation officers calculate that at least 6,000 extra offenders will fall foul of these new rules and will be locked up.

The document says: 'Ministers would like the revised national standards to redress the balance in presenting community sentences as punishment, place greater emphasis on the protection of the public, and provide a tougher response to failure to comply with an order.'

It adds that the new standards must give 'an assurance as to the content of supervision and how it will be undertaken, including the return of offenders to court under breach proceedings'.

Other recommendations include timetables for offenders, with key targets to achieve. Criminals must start community and probation sentences promptly, with supervision plans being drawn up within five working days of an order being made. Those on probation orders will have to complete a minimum number of appointments.

The Home Office is also believed to be considering having uniforms for probation officers in an attempt to present a more 'professional' image. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'Ministers want a more correctional, rather than social work- based, service. This will result in thousands of breaches of 'rules' and therefore more jail sentences and ultimately more crime. They seem to fail to understand how offenders will react to these changes.'

Each year, about 40,000 community service orders are made for imprisonable offences. Offenders are required to carry out work that benefits the community, such as cleaning and painting. About 45,000 probation orders are made annually, which can include special treatment to tackle drug and sexual problems. In 1992, 11,500 people breached community service orders and 2,100 were sent to jail. Of those on probation, 8,400 breached the rules and 3,800 were locked up.