Sunday, May 14, 2006


I read more Press than is good for me, so I have probably absorbed some of the unhealthy obsessions that predominate in the media at the moment.

But having read what is in the media, I truly fear for what is happening to the Probation Service.

When I started out on the Bench Probation's mantra was Advise, Assist, Befriend. Over time, and as the public's mood grew more punitive, and as politicians increasingly pandered to the mob, Probation was moved into the National Offender Management Service and became part of the apparatus of punishment and supervision. I cannot offhand think of any other public service that has had its ethos turned around so comprehensively, and with so little publicity.

There is currently a media/political panic about people offending while on Probation supervision. Public concern is understandable, but short of Probation officers following their many charges around 24 hours a day, what are they supposed to do? Something like two-thirds of young men who are imprisoned reoffend within a short time.

The horrible murder of Mary-Anne Leneghan in Reading prompted headlines that the killers were 'under probation supervision'. What realistic chance did Probation have of preventing this tragedy, at least in the case of the gang members who had committed low-level offences? The Monckton case was another horror story, but the bottom line is that the killer had been released from prison and Probation could only monitor him at best, although of course even that went wrong.

The practical effect of all this will not, as it should, be to allocate more resources to Probation, but rather to cause a panic reaction that will make parole less likely and community sentences less used - in flat contradiction to the Lord Chief Justice's thoughtful policy that I have mentioned recently. Then watch out for the headlines as the prisons fill up in six months' time.

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