Senior probation officers have told the Guardian that some life prisoners are being kept behind bars for two or three years too long, simply because their overstretched service cannot provide the reports which the parole board needs to consider their release.

The delay in parole reports - a scandal which eventually may see the government sued for wrongful imprisonment - is overshadowed by an even graver problem, the effective collapse of the probation service as an instrument for tackling the causes of crime. From the most junior ranks to some of the most senior managers, probation staff use the same word to describe the state of their service: "Chaos."

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