LETTER : Look to the Probation Service when dealing with crime

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The Independent Online
Sir: Important as constitutional issues are, your editorial ("The wrong way to fight crime", 8 March) was right to suggest that the current dispute between the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice is largely irrelevant to the reduction of crime. It is, however, wrong to speak of "overhasty reforms ... in the early Nineties that made sentencing more lenient". Compared with all the vote-catching initiatives that have superseded it, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 was a carefully thought-out and coherent strategy which complemented the Woolf report's vision of a more humane and effective penal system.

In truth, however, the 1991 framework was given only a few months to work before key parts of it were removed, and the scene set for Michael Howard's lamentable "prison works" strategy. One consequence of this is a penal system yet again on the edge of collapse.

Since the demise of the philosophy underpinning the 1991 Act the Probation Service has been in political limbo. Slowly, through internal critique, it is remaking itself, recognising that it must provide, and be seen to provide, a service for the whole community. It is putting its blinkered and nostalgic defence of social work training behind it, but not, quite rightly, its due regard for the place of care and support in all effective work with offenders, or its belief that social exclusion lies at the root of much, if not all, criminal behaviour.

So long as it is not undermined by a soulless managerialism, it is to the Probation Service, in partnership with reputable voluntary agencies, that one should look for the new ways of dealing with crime to which your editorial referred. Its potential remains untapped.

Dr Mike Nellis

Lecturer in Probation Studies

University of Birmingham