Belfast Telegraph

Locking up offenders is often not the best penaltyProbation has proved to be an effective method of tackling crime and rehabilitating criminals, says Ronnie Spence

Today, Justice Minister, David Ford, launched the Probation Board for Northern Ireland's three-year corporate plan. Probation plays a crucial role in the criminal justice system.

It supervises around 4,700 offenders in the community, a figure likely to grow over the next decade. In addition, some 9,700 reports a year are provided, mainly to assist the courts in deciding sentences for convicted offenders.

Nearly everyone has strong views about how to deal with offenders and it is a topic that rouses strong passions, especially if you, your family or your community have suffered directly from crime. Our priority is preventing more people becoming victims of crime.

The costs of re-offending are high. There are firstly the costs to, and impact on, the victims of that further offence; which can be immense. Then, there are the costs to the police of investigating the crime, the public prosecution service in taking a case to court, the legal aid budget in financing the legal costs of defendants, the courts in holding a trial, and the prison and probation services in implementing the sentence.

As well as our duty to do all we can to make our community safer, it also makes financial sense to seek to reduce the risks of re-offending.

But what sort of approach is likely to be most successful in reducing re-offending? We need to look carefully at the characteristics of offenders; most are male and aged under 30. Many offenders suffer from acute mental health problems; alcohol and substance abuse are also influential factors. For others, involvement in crime is simply the latest step in a life of failure - in their family, in attaining qualifications and skills, in finding and retaining a job, and in their personal relationships.

It is only a minority of offenders who are totally unable to distinguish between right and wrong, are willing to use violence to satisfy their needs, and show little recognition of the impact of their action on victims and society.

David Cameron recently said: "Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context. And we must not shy away from it."

The challenge is therefore to devise responses most appropriate for each offender; that reflect the impact of the offence; take full account of the future threat to the community; and carry the best prospects of changing behaviours.

In responding to this challenge, there is a growing awareness that:

n Some offenders must go to prison for a very long time because of the seriousness of their offence and the very high risk that they may re-offend;

n Offenders with serious mental health or substance abuse problems may be better managed under arrangements that can address these problems;

n For some offenders demanding community sentences which challenge and change attitudes and behaviours can be more effective at reducing re-offending than short prison sentences;

n Those sentenced to longer sentences followed by a period on probation require considerable work by prison and probation staff to address the underlying causes of their offending.

The trend is, therefore, likely to mean increasing numbers of offenders supervised in the community.

The latest evidence about reoffending shows that around three quarters of offenders on community service and probation orders do not re-offend within one year.

Probation works and the majority of offenders do not go on to re-offend. Those who do choose to reoffend are held to account.

Probation works in all parts of Northern Ireland to make our society safer and help offenders to adopt a more positive and constructive life. Probation prides itself in seeking to work in, through and with the community. We already work with over 300 bodies in the voluntary and community sectors and we want to build on that foundation, including developing arrangements for a mentoring scheme. The coming years will challenge PBNI to build on its record of achievement.

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