Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Our Feeble Justice System Left These Poor Men to Die; as the Killers of Two French Students in London Are Found Guilty of Murder, One Criminal Justice Expert Says Whitehall Policy Blunders Are Most to Blame

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Our Feeble Justice System Left These Poor Men to Die; as the Killers of Two French Students in London Are Found Guilty of Murder, One Criminal Justice Expert Says Whitehall Policy Blunders Are Most to Blame

Article excerpt

Byline: Harriet Sergeant

TODAY'S guilty verdicts on Daniel Sonnex and Nigel Farmer for the brutal murder of two French students in south-east London last summer reflect most damningly on the probation service that was meant to be supervising them. Specifically, its reorganisation into NOMS (National Offender Management Service) has been a dismal and expensive failure.

Ten days ago it was revealed that David Scott, director of the London probation service, has resigned. A secret investigation by Whitehall highlighted "a series of appalling blunders" in his department that left Sonnex free to kill when he should have been in jail. The confidential report says errors were a consequence of "high caseloads, relative inexperience and ... insufficient supervision". Harry Fletcher, assistant secretary of Napo, the probation officers' union, said the system was in "meltdown". At least half of trainee probation officers due to qualify this autumn, at a cost to the taxpayer of [pounds sterling]100,000 to train each, has been told there will be no permanent job for them.

It is not the probation service which is at fault. It is the contradiction at the heart of government policy. For ideological and economic reasons ministers are reluctant to imprison criminals. Unfortunately for the Government, the public disagrees. Key to the Government's strategy to reduce crime and reassure the public, is probation and community services.

Home Secretary after Home Secretary has told us, as Charles Clarke insisted, that they are, "a powerful, effective and tough punishment which offers the best chance of stopping offenders offending again". The best chance, in other words, means a better chance than prison. The probation service used to be about building relationships with criminals. Now it has become an extension of the prison service and about controlling dangerous young men such as Daniel Sonnex -- men who 20 years ago would have been in prison.

The Government has put probation in an impossible position. One and the same institution is meant to rehabilitate, act as guard and prevent crimes by mind-reading the criminals in its charge. It is hardly surprising it is failing on all three counts -- to the detriment of offenders, the public and the probation service itself.

A criminologist who used to work in the Home Office statistical department explained that the notion that community services protect the public from crime is "sheer impression management and spin." An ex-probation officer with many years' experience shook his head, "Supervision is meant to be so tight, an offender can't breathe without probation knowing. Of course that is rubbish. You can seen an ex-offender at 3pm. By 3.30 he has mugged an old lady. If you want secure, then put them back in prison. …

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