Letter: Probation service: gesture politics, reoffending, the welfare r ole

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The Independent Online
Sir: I have been a magistrate for 22 years, first in London, then in industrial Bedfordshire, latterly in rural Somerset. I am writing to express my despair at the undermining of sane and consistent penal policy and practice by the gesture politic s of our current Home Secretary. First, in the face of all the evidence, he proclaims that "prison works". Now we have more posturing; this time over probation orders and the probation service ("Probation to be scrapped for a tougher regime", 16 January)

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Most probation officers are realistic, competent and committed. Of course there are a few woolly idealists, but they seldom last the course. Offenders put on probation by the courts are mostly young, poor, uneducated, unskilled, confused and aimless; a high proportion are unemployed. Their typical crimes are petty: minor theft and dishonesty, drink and drug offences, taking and driving cars.

Offenders like these must certainly expect some punishment for what they have done. But along with their punishment they often need help in sorting out their lives and engaging with society. Understanding what help to give and how best to give it in the context of a court order requires training in social and psychological skills and in the appropriate law. British Army discipline is fine in the Army where there is a unit for the miscreant to go back to and a strong institutional framework. Offenders onprobation do not have these things.

The short-term success rate of probation, widely reported, is high. One cannot blame probation officers for the fact that, once their involvement is finished, there are neither the jobs nor the social framework to encourage potential offenders to stick to the straight and narrow.

On these and related matters Mr Howard appears to reject informed advice and objective research findings whenever they clash with what he wishes to believe. This is the politics of the nursery. Where does it leave the magistrates, who are supposed to be administering consistent justice? Few among us, I suspect, would welcome a new role as managers of correctional programmes. Or does he hope that we too will be replaced by ex-Army sergeants and policemen?

Yours faithfully, TOM REES Stawell, Somerset 18 January

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