Persistent offenders unconvinced by £100m rehabilitation scheme

Hundreds of criminals are refusing to take part in a controversial £100m Home Office programme designed to reform persistent offenders, probation staff say.

The programme requires offenders – many of whom have a reading age of seven or below – to answer hundreds of questions about themselves as part of American-devised "psychometric tests".

Probation officers said the tests were "unrealistic" and "too complicated" and that the biggest probation scheme to be undertaken in Britain would fail to meet Home Office targets because offenders were walking away from the programme. The Home Office wants 60,000 offenders to go through the programmes each year by 2003-04, by when it will cost £100m a year to run. The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) estimated only 15,000 a year at most would ever complete the courses.

The Accredited Programme scheme is a key part of the Home Office's crime reduction strategy and involves the recruitment of 4,500 extra staff to the new National Probation Service. The scheme includes programmes designed to address substance abuse, violent behaviour, drink driving, sex offending and general offending.

It is claimed that the programmes – which begin with the psychometric tests and then evolve into 20 to 35 group sessions involving 10 offenders – will reduce reoffending rates by 15 per cent. But pilot schemes in the North-west have shown that 42 per cent of offenders are so put off by the questions in the tests that they do not turn up for the rest of the programme. Another pilot in Teesside has had only a 25 per cent completion rate. Most of those who fail to turn up for the programmes will be returned to the courts to be resentenced.

In the psychometric tests, offenders are asked whether they agree or disagree with dozens of written statements, including: "I make it a point to read the financial section of the newspaper before turning to the sports page."

They are also asked if they agree that: "When frustrated, I stop thinking rationally." Another question asks: "Paul is walking to work one day, when he looks down and finds a £20 note. How would Paul feel?"

Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary, said the questions were unrealistic. He said:"These tests are more suited to undergraduates than to offenders with reading ages of six. It is hardly surprising that so many are failing to turn up for the programmes."

But the National Probation Service, which oversees the scheme, said the value of all the programmes had been carefully evaluated for their effectiveness in reducing reoffending.

A spokesman said if programmes were found to be failing to reach their targets they could be withdrawn.

The spokesman said that the psychometric tests were designed to get offenders to "think through problems".

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