Letter: Criminal Justice Act: probation, magistrates' fines, children's testimony

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The Independent Online
Sir: Clearly, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 was long overdue if the reactions you reported yesterday are representative ('Criticism blights launch of new crime legislation', 1 October). It has taken the sledgehammer of legislation to bring to the attention of some services the responsibility they have to contribute to a just and effective criminal justice system.

The comments made by representatives of chief police officers appear to go well beyond their own remit, while ducking their responsibilities to other agencies. Information held by the police about the previous records of offenders should, properly, be made available to those, including probation officers, who may legitimately use it to contribute to the judicial process. It is not the private property of the police services. Probation officers cannot be expected to provide reports to the courts about the safe resettlement of offenders in the community without access to this information.

Changes in the parole system, if carefully implemented, could promote safe resettlement more effectively than by keeping prisoners locked up. Parole is perhaps the most successful measure introduced in the criminal justice system in the past 50 years, with a very low rate of return to prison for further offending. Probation services have kept local police services informed about the release of prisoners on parole, and the addresses at which parolees reside, for many years.

While it is understandable that the judiciary has commented on the challenge represented by the requirement to sentence (in most instances) without regard to the defendant's previous record, the reasons for its concern should not be misinterpreted. The judges, in common with many others affected by the Act, have to discard a comfortable and familiar framework for the uncertainty of a completely new one. However, the new Act relies on a 'just deserts' approach to offending, which implies that punishment is the only proper objective of sentencing. It is for this reason that community sentences (such as the probation order) have been included in this new framework. If someone has been punished once for an offence, is it 'justice' to punish them twice if they repeat it? I suspect the public's view of natural justice would lead it to support this fundamental principle of the Act.

Yours sincerely,

JENNY ROBERTS

Chair, Association of Chief Officers of Probation

Worcester

2 October

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