Leading article: Overstretched and unfairly blamed

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The details of the murder of two French students in south east London last June are terrible enough. But what makes the case still more harrowing is the fact that, as the Justice Secretary Jack Straw conceded yesterday, one of the murderers ought to have been behind bars at the time the killings took place.

The probation service has taken the brunt of the blame for the fact that Dano Sonnex was at liberty on 29 June when he ought to have been returned to prison six weeks earlier for breaching the terms of his release licence. The head of the London Probation Service, David Scott has resigned.

And there were clearly failings. Officers took too long to complete the paperwork revoking Sonnex's licence after he broke the terms of his probation. But that cannot disguise the clear shortcomings of other arms of the criminal justice system that contributed to this disaster. In May 2008, when Sonnex was charged with handling stolen goods, magistrates inexplicably granted him bail. Then, after Sonnex's licence was finally revoked, it took the police two weeks before they attempted to track him down.

The Government must accept some share of the blame too. Probation officers have long complained of being overstretched – Sonnex's probation officer was juggling a staggering 127 cases. And yet ministers have failed to provide the necessary resources. Their most significant contribution has been the division of the Home Office and the Justice Department in 2007, which has made communication between the various departments of the justice sector more difficult.

This is not the first time in recent years that bureaucratic failings have allowed dangerous individuals to kill. Naomi Bryant was murdered by Anthony Rice in 2005, after "substantial mistakes and misjudgments" according to the chief inspector of probation. Later that year, John Monkton was murdered by two criminals on probation after "many deficiencies" by the prison service.

Blaming over-pressed probation officers is not good enough. It is time ministers accepted that there is something wrong with the broader system in place to deal with dangerous individuals released into our communities.

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