Probation is harder than short, sharp shock, justice conference told
Probation should not be seen as a soft option for criminals, a major conference on justice has been told.
Challenging offenders to address their behaviour, tackle addictions and carry out unpaid work in the community is more difficult than serving a short stint in jail, according to Vilma Patterson, chairman of the Probation Board.
Community sentences also reduced reoffending and provided better value for money, she said.
"We cannot incarcerate our way to a safer community," she said. "We need a range of options to deal with offenders and tackle offending behaviour.
"Those options need to be radical, bold and flexible."
The comments were made during a speech at a Probation in Focus seminar at Belfast's Malone House.
Labour MP Kier Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, justice minister David Ford and Les Allamby, chief commissioner with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, were among the guest speakers at the event.
Last year the Probation Board put forward proposals to pilot new intensive community service sentence and restorative justice options.
The plans have the potential to reduce prison numbers by providing stronger supervision and more opportunities for rehabilitation, delegates were told.
However public misconceptions must be challenged, said Ms Patterson, adding that complex messaging about the process of rehabilitation and resettlement were often overlooked in favour of "lock them up and throw away the key" soundbites.
Ms Patterson said: "The cost associated with sending someone to prison is significant and in a time of reduced budgets and diminishing resources prison should be a place of last resort.
"We need to ask does prison offer the best value for money for all offenders? My view is no.
"But that should not be seen a signal that we are in some way soft on crime. Absolutely not. In fact the challenge provided by community sentences such as community service can be greater than a short prison sentence.
"Indeed I have met young men on community service who have said they would rather be in prison than carrying out unpaid work in the community because it is challenging.
"Of course it not just the work that is challenging it is complying with the need to address the reasons why they have offended.
"I have heard women say that confronting their past and their addictions through programmes and interventions has been one of the most difficult things they have done and it would have been easier to have been in prison.
"Community sentences, supervised professionally, can help make a person take responsibility and live a law-abiding life."