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If Ken Clarke is shocked that probation officers spend 75 per cent of their time on paperwork and just 25 per cent supervising offenders, he shouldn’t be. The trend across the criminal justice system has been for rehabilitation to play second fiddle to ‘managing’ the nation’s expanding stock of offenders
At the heart of this problem is that judges and magistrates, driven by tabloid fervour, have been handing out ever harsher sentences. People are being sent to prison for increasingly petty crimes, and the custody bill is spiralling. At £45,000 a place, prison is an extraordinarily expensive policy intervention. It has been paid for with resources taken out of social and community services.

Probation went the way of prisons: the Labour government centralised the service in order to drive through top-down systems for monitoring and compliance. Yet most of work in rehabilitating offenders lies outside the criminal justice system. It is not prison or probation services, but rather local services providing access to housing, education, drug and alcohol treatment that possess the levers to reduce crime and reoffending.
New research by IPPR argues for radical reform that makes local authorities a powerful new force within the criminal justice system, charged with reducing reoffending and working with others to break the cycle. Similar approaches in the US have led to dramatic reductions in local crime rates – and slimlined penal budgets.

IPPR calls for a national policy in which non-violent offenders currently sentenced to six months or less are not sent to prison, but serve tough community sentences instead. Even as they stand, community sentences are more effective than a short stint in jail: in 2008 custodial sentences of less than 12 months were less effective at reducing reoffending than both community orders and suspended sentence orders.
They are also cheaper. IPPR’s research shows that replacing prison sentences of six months or less with community sentences would allow the government to reduce the prison population by over 5,000 offenders, saving taxpayers £50 million a year. Under the scheme, local authorities and newly devolved probation services could reinvest these savings to improve local alternatives to prison.

The Justice Secretary’s answer to better community supervision of offenders is to cut ‘red tape’ (a familiar refrain across this government) for probation officers. Yet the problem has deeper roots than the target culture that came to define Labour’s approach to public service reform. Clarke has to think big if he’s going to save his much-needed reforms. He needs to exchange the panoptic vision of criminal justice for one that puts local rehabilitation and redemption at the heart of the system.

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Written by Tess Lanning   
Monday, 01 August 2011 14:53

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