Probation chief urges more powers


Heather Munro of the Probation Chiefs' Association called for powers to cut or increase the length of community sentences

Probation staff should be able to cut the length of community sentences served by offenders if they perform well, a service chief has said.

Heather Munro, vice-chairwoman of the Probation Chiefs’ Association, said greater flexibility and discretion for staff to reward or punish offenders depending on their performance would help to cut costs and waste in the criminal justice system.

She was speaking after the Policy Exchange think tank called for probation officers to be given new powers to vary the length of work orders, impose extra punishments on those who broke the rules, and, in extreme cases, order the forfeiture of personal assets.

Ms Munro, who is also chief executive of the London Probation Trust, said probation officers were often “hidebound by standards” which set out that offenders are allowed only two unacceptable absences from unpaid work before they must be taken back to court.

“Huge cost and waste in the system” could be cut “if we had more flexibility to reward people if they’ve done really, really well, or punish them ourselves with some extra hours”,” she said.

“Taking people back to court is very costly. We’d be very keen for more flexibilities, both to give sanctions, but also to perhaps reward people with less hours. It would be really good if we could say, actually, you’ve got 120 hours, if you do really, really well and you can get this done in three months and you don’t miss, you get 10% knocked off. It’d be brilliant.”

Ms Munro also said some probation services would stop next year in the wake of 10% cuts over the next four years, including 5% in 2011/12. This may include fewer services for lower-risk offenders and more flexibility to focus resources where they were needed.

“It may be we’ll not run as many of these general offending programmes but we’ll run a lot more of the domestic violence programmes,” Ms Munro said.

“We’ve got to respond to need, but we can’t just increase one without doing less of something else. In a community order you can have up to 12 different sorts of requirements, it’s quite complex. Perhaps instead of three requirements we have more people with one requirement, or less people with supervision elements attached.”

A Victim Support spokesman said: “Victims will want to know why a sentence has been increased or decreased so it is important that decisions are transparent, communicated properly and that there is input from the victim if they want it.”

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