Mind out for those probation plans

Yvonne Roberts regrets the government’s move
to turn probation officers into minders for some offenders.

Somehow, the system just can’t help itself.
David Blunkett, the home secretary, has adopted, at least in some
areas of penal policy, a softer tone than his predecessor, Jack
Straw. He has, for instance, questioned the value of chucking more
offenders into prison, “the college of crime”.

Someone should tell the courts. Since June,
numbers of prisoners shot up by 2,000, to 68,127. For the first
time 4,000 women are behind bars, representing a 200 per cent
increase in 10 years – all in spite of a recent 33 per cent drop in

Jack Straw promised “to make prisons work”.
His efforts – including a literacy and numeracy drive – were buried
deep in layers of tough rhetoric. So, it’s now up to Blunkett to

He should make it plain that the best way to
further reduce crime and permanently shrink the prison population
is by offering those already inside customised, intense and
sustained support which continues long after the prison sentence is

A new sentencing structure and major shake-up
of the courts has been postponed until next autumn. Once in place,
repeat offenders, of whom there are about 100,000, may serve a
sentence in full, followed by up to 10 years’ “supervision” by the
probation service – a proposal which appears to turn probation
officers into a plain clothes division of the prison service.

We should begin at the beginning. In The Key,
the magazine of the prison governors’ association, Chris
Tchaikovsky of Women In Prison, suggests the creation of secure
mental health assessment centres to permanently divert the 20,000
mentally ill prison inmates from the criminal justice system. She
argues that education and training in prisons, more support with
jobs and housing are, of course, vital but so is an incentive to
change. She advocates an, “effective staged release” in which a
prisoner might “earn” a speedier return to freedom, for instance,
by acquiring qualifications, the completion of a drug programme,
and by tackling their dysfunctional behaviour.

Instead, too many prisoners are released with
no home, no income, no confidence, no family and no hope. To put
that right requires resources and a probation service committed to
finding innovative ways of fulfilling its traditional role – to
help ex-offenders to help themselves. That is a very long way from
becoming what amounts to the minders of the penal system, spending
years on guard waiting for the ex-offender to err again.

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