Criticism over justice system

GOVERNMENT promises to get tough on crime are being undermined by swingeing cuts to law enforcement, probation workers warned last night on the eve of a visit to Norfolk by justice secretary Jack Straw.

GOVERNMENT promises to get tough on crime are being undermined by swingeing cuts to law enforcement, probation workers warned last night on the eve of a visit to Norfolk by justice secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Straw will officially open the county's new probation office in Norwich today before visiting offenders carrying out work in the community as part of their sentence. He said his visit would drive home the message that “justice should not just be done but be seen to be done”.

But representatives of the East Anglian branch of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) described the visit as a “smoke-screen”, coming at a time when the service in Norfolk faces a funding cut of almost �2m. They added that it will be difficult to deliver on ministerial pledges to tackle re-offending while also making efficiency savings.

In recent months Mr Straw has called on courts to impose more non-custodial sentences to relieve pressure on overcrowded jails - a move which will increase the workload of already stretched probation workers. He has also pledged that more work will be done to rehabilitate prisoners.

But Andy Wales, NAPO East Anglia branch chairman, said such initiatives would inevitably be hindered by wide-scale funding cuts - affecting not just probation but the police, prisons and courts.

He added: “We have been advised that there are likely to be 20 jobs lost in the coming year and given the increased cuts in the following years the total number of jobs lost will be substantial and cannot fail to reduce the service's ability to protect the public.

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“We are also concerned that other areas of the criminal justice system including court and prison staff are also facing 'efficiency' savings and our colleagues in those services are under tremendous pressure at the present time, and will be for the foreseeable future.”

Norfolk probation area's budget will be cut from �11.5m in the current financial year to �9.7m by 2010/11,

The government's grant for policing in Norfolk next year looks set to be revised. Chris Harding, chief executive of Norfolk Police Authority, said the force stands to “loose out significantly” if ministers backtrack on funding announcements made last year.

Similar cutbacks are being made across the criminal justice system, with magistrates anticipating a massive shortfall in the court service budget announced later this month and prison reform groups saying efficiency savings are crippling attempts at rehabilitation within jails.

Mr Wales said: “There is a lot of talk at government level about taking a tough stance on crime and carrying out more work, both in prisons and in the community, to stop re-offending.

“But the reality is we are being asked to do more with less money and fewer people.

“The local management is working hard to make this work under difficult circumstances, but something has to give.”

Meanwhile, prison reform groups have welcomed Mr Straw's renewed emphasis on tackling re-offending but said such promises must be backed up by funding.

Colin Moses, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said “efficiency savings” imposed on the prison service meant staff cuts, prisoners held in their cells for longer and behaviour programmes cancelled.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The key to success in bringing down re-offending rates will be whether ministers are willing and able to reduce the enormous number of people in prison who do not need to be there.”

Among the initiatives introduced by Mr Straw is a scheme which sees criminals given community sentences ordered to wear hi-visibility jackets while working in public. The justice secretary has also pledged that fresh prison reforms will cut reoffending rates, reduce drug use in jails and give more skills to offenders.

Speaking ahead of his visit, he said: “Community punishments like unpaid work can be more productive than prison in getting offenders to address the causes of their criminality. Offenders sentenced to 'pay' for their crimes within the community can already expect to work hard, with no pay and significant loss of free time. But the type of unpaid work that can be seen here today provides training for offenders that can lead to real employment opportunities and a reduction in reoffending.

“The public has a right to know what unpaid work offenders are doing in their area to pay back for the wrongs they committed. That's why we introduced the high visibility jackets that offenders wear while working.”