By David Fraser
Each week, a murder or rape is committed by offenders supposedly under supervision. Yet, even knee-deep in evidence of its own failure, the National Probation Service cannot acknowledge its inability to reform these criminals. It is all a deadly con trick, writes David Fraser, who spent years working in the service
When I read that four of the six men who raped, tortured and then murdered the schoolgirl Maryann Leneghan were on probation, I felt angry and desperately sad. But I was not in the least surprised: I realised long ago that probation is a gigantic con trick played on the public.
I spent 34 years working with criminals. For most of those years, I was trying to reform criminals, first as an officer, then a manager, in the probation service. I witnessed at first hand the contempt of most criminals for the "rehabilitation sessions" - which then lasted, at most, half an hour a week - that were supposed to persuade them out of a life of crime.
Most of the criminals, when they did not see the sessions as a huge joke, thought our conversations a pointless bore. Their behaviour showed it: when they were not talking to me, they simply continued their criminal careers. That, to me, demonstrated just how futile the attempts to turn them into law-abiding citizens were.
Almost all governments since the 1960s have tried to convince the public that probation works and prison does not. In fact, that is the exact opposite of the truth. Probation, parole and community sentences fail miserably at reforming criminals. The reality is that if criminals are in prison, they cannot commit crimes. If they are in the community, they can - and they do.
The Government spends enormous amounts of money, time and energy on trying to deny this obvious truth. The statistics are blatantly fiddled to "prove" that probation and community sentences are as effective as prison at reducing crime.
The only way to get this result is simply to refuse to recognise that when in prison, criminals cannot commit crimes. So that is precisely what happens. The reconviction rates of prisoners are measured from the time of their release, while the reconviction rates of those on probation or community supervision are measured fom the start of the order. Even on that spurious comparison, which is blatantly and deliberately mendacious, the two rates of conviction are broadly similar.
The conjuring trick has the desired effect: it fools most people into thinking that probation is "just as good" as prison. Recent events, however, should have gone some way towards dispelling that illusion.
Damien Hanson, who stabbed the banker John Monckton to death in his Chelsea home, was on parole. Yousef Bouhaddaou, who murdered Robert Symons when the school teacher disturbed him as Bouhaddaou was burgling his house, was also under the supervision of the probation sevice.
Now we know that Michael Johnson, the ringleader of the group of vile and vicious sadists who murdered 16-year-old Maryann was on community supervision, as were three of the others involved. None of these hideous murders would have happened if the men had been in jail.
Harry Fletcher, the secretary of the National Associaton of Probation Officers, and Martin Wargent, the chief executive of the Probation Boards Association, have both been in the press and on the radio defending the service, and quoting a new statistic: that, of the 13,000 offenders who are assessed by the probation service to pose a "high or a very high" risk to the public, only "0.6 per cent committed serious offences last year".
That sounds as if it is an impressive testament to the National Probation Service's success. It starts to seem somewhat less so when you realise that "serious offences" covers such crimes murder, rape, arson and armed robbery.
It does not include assault, actual bodily harm, burglary, fraud or theft. Even if the "0.6 per cent of 13,000" statistic is correct, it still means that, on average, someone is raped or murdered or seriously injured each week by a criminal supposedly under the supervision of the probation service.
The admission that decisions by the probation service result in "only" one murder, rape or similarly serious offence a week does not sound like something to boast about. Again, these are all crimes that would not have happened had the criminal not been released to be supervised by the probation service.
It is an outrage. Those murders and rapes, not to say millions of lesser crimes, are wholly the result of the Government's policy of preferring probation, parole and "community punishments" to prison.
Moreover, it is important to point out that Johnson and the three others who murdered Maryann Leneghan while on probation would not be counted as among the "0.6 per cent" of offenders "assessed as high risk who reoffended last year". Astonishingly, they would all be classified, in Home Office statistics, not as a failure, but as a success for the probation service. This is for two reasons.
First, although the murder of Maryann was committed during their period of probation, they were not convicted of the crime or, indeed, charged with it until after that probation period was over. According to the probation service's definition of a "successfully completed period of supervision", these men did exactly that.
Amazingly, offences committed during the probation period do not count. Only offences for which a criminal is convicted while he is on probation are recorded in Home Office statistics as a "failure" of probation.
Second, Johnson et al were all assessed as at a "low risk", which automatically rules them out of being among the "13,000 high-risk offenders", of whom "only 0.6 per cent committed serious offences last year".
So a statistic that looks, on the surface, as if it is a tribute to the success of the probation service, is actually an example of its multiple failures. Although the probation service is able to predict accurately how likely criminals are to reoffend, it fails to stop them doing so.
This is as true of the probation service's much-vaunted "intensive supervision" courses as it is of the probation or parole consisting of a bog-standard, half-hour meeting a week. Consider, for example, the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme, which the Government introduced, at a cost of £98 million, as an alternative to sending young offenders to prison.
A recent assessment of that programme showed that it had been a total failure: a staggering 91 per cent of the juvenile offenders were reconvicted of an offence while they were still on the programme. But was that enough for it to be recognised as a failure by those within the criminal justice industry? Absolutely not.
Incredibly, Ellie Roy, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, insisted that a 91 per cent failure rate was, in fact, "a success". She claimed that "young people on the programme commit 40 per cent fewer crimes than previously, and those they do commit are much less serious".
Ms Roy's defence is spurious: she could not know either how many or how severe the offences that the juvenile offenders on the course were committing. All she or anyone else could possibly know for certain were the offences that the courts had found these young people guilty of committing.
Since about 20 times as many offences are committed as result in criminal convictions, this suggests that the young criminals on the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme were busy committing far more offences than those which they were actually convicted for while on the course.
The real recidivist rate on that programme was almost certainly not 91 per cent: it was 100 per cent. That is a failure by any standard - except, of course, the one that the National Probation Service uses.
It is the same story with just about every form of probation you care to consider. What Works - the special programme that was claimed, as its name suggests, to work, in direct contrast to earlier programmes - turned out not to work after all: 84 per cent of the criminals on that programme were convicted of offences committed while they were taking part.
Drug Testing and Treatment Orders, also rolled out with much fanfare by the Government as an effective way of dealing with crime "in the community", had an even higher rate of failure: 90 per cent of the criminals on that programme were convicted of offences committed while they were on it.
The Home Office statistics show that the rate of reconviction for all males on probation is more than 60 per cent. And, remember, these statistics count only reconvictions. When you consider that about 20 offences are committed for every one that results in a conviction, the real rate of reoffending is going to be far higher.
The Home Office and the Government is perfectly well aware of these figures - and of the shattering failure of probation and related "community sentences" which they represent. The truth is that criminals placed in the community commit crimes. No one knows that better than Government ministers and civil servants at the Home Office. Why, then, do they deny it in public?
There is a simple answer: money. The Government argues that probation and parole are, compared with prison, cheap. In reality, the cost of crime (at least £60 billion a year) far outweighs the cost of prisons. The only way of preventing criminals from committing crimes that is known to be effective is to lock them in prison.
But keeping criminals in prison is expensive. The Government would have to embark on a massive prison-building programme if it were to replace probation, parole and community sentences with incarceration.
No one in the Government, and certainly no one in the Treasury, is prepared to spend the enormous sums that would be required. So they keep on peddling the false promise that probation, parole and community sentences protect us all just as well as prison.
Honest, law-abiding people are the victims of this policy of pretending that probation does anything to reduce crime. It does not. The Government has evidently made the decision that it is too expensive to put criminals out of circulation, and that they must be allowed to prey on the rest of us.
Perhaps a majority of us would turn out to share the view that the millions of additional crimes, which include scores of murders and rapes, is a price worth paying. Somehow I doubt it.
But we have not been asked: instead, we have been lied to and conned, fed phoney statistics and imaginary "success" rates for probation, and told that everything is going just fine. It is not. The sooner we all realise that fact and see through the probation con-trick, the better.
• David Fraser is the author of A Land Fit for Criminals (Book Guild Publishing; £17.99), available in bookshops from Thursday or by telephoning 01825 873133.