The other day I heard an advert on the radio that chilled me to my very core. I’ve tried and failed to find a transcript of the aforementioned ad so you’ll just have to take my word on how chilling it was. Perhaps you’ve heard it? It went a little something like this:
Community Payback is punishment handed out by the courts. It is physical, demanding work carried out by criminals in the community. Offenders have to wear bright orange jackets that say “Community Payback”. To vote for or nominate projects in your local area that could benefit from the scheme please enter your details into the website. Justice seen, justice done. Brought to you by the Ministry of Justice.
Justice done? Seriously? Surely this isn’t justice; it’s a crass and poorly thought through attempt to convince the masses of our ability to tackle crime.
It probably won’t come as any surprise that I’m not part of the bring-back-the-gallows brigade, but I do believe that criminal behaviour should be met with tough and appropriate punishment and re-education. That’s not what this is. This is government sanctioned public humiliation. What’s more I think we should be ashamed.
To add a little detail to the Community Payback scheme, it replaced Community Service in 2003 despite widespread concern about the ethics of the programme. Anyone “eligible” for the scheme can’t be deemed to be a danger to the public so it's not a huge leap to translate that to mean that in effect it’s for low level offenders, perhaps with repeat convictions but not for any violent or “serious offences”. There's worryingly little information available on the actual detail of this scheme so logical leaps are all we have to go on.
For me the message that we’re sending out is fairly unequivocal. It’s a message of failure. ASBOs didn’t work; all the prisons are full; fines don't get paid; Community Service wasn’t visible enough. We failed to change your anti-social behaviour so now we’re going to resort to shaming you in the hope that that may work. Oh and we’re going to do it in the community that we want to reintegrate you into after you’ve completed your 300 hours of scraping shit off our shoes.
We all know the stats at play here, so much so that it’s barely worth repeating. Those involved in anti-social behaviour and low level crime will normally be young, male and from a low socio-economic background. That’s not an excuse, it’s an entry point. We already know how to effectively reach this population. Charities and the voluntary sector are doing it all the time, so are commercial companies, busy hawking their products. So why can’t the Government manage it?*
Rather than resorting to naming and shaming surely our resources should be being poured into prevention - if for no other more virtuous reason, it’d be cheaper. Going into schools, youth clubs, houses if necessary and educating our youth about social and personal responsibility. Offering other options, opportunities; giving them something to do; reaching out a helping hand when it’s needed.
And don’t even get me started on being able to “vote or nominate projects”, this isn’t Britain’s Got Criminals.
Lay people having such a powerful voice in crime prevention and justice is a dangerous precedent to set, if it wasn't we wouldn’t have a need for the police, or judges, hell we probably wouldn’t even need traffic wardens.
I really don’t want to underestimate the impact of crime (whether low level or serious) on either individual victims, or communities as a whole. And one thing that is clear is that something needs to be done to restore public confidence in our justice system. But, change must come from genuine attempts at systemic change across all of our law enforcement agencies. A starting point would be if we could decide on what prison is actually for (protection of the public? punishment? rehabilitation? re-education? education? all of the above?). What we don’t need is yet another short sighted gimmick to win votes.
Of course many would vehemently disagree. They’d probably say that it’s this kind of liberal thinking that's allowed criminal behaviour to flourish unchallenged and unpunished. In fact, maybe it’s me who needs a hi-vis jacket, start paying my community back. Maybe I’ve got it completely wrong?
*This isn’t a dig at Labour; I don’t believe that any of the big three would manage it right now because there simply isn’t the political will to try.
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