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When the payback is humiliation

20 May 2009

Community sentences are being influenced by those seeking retribution, says Peter Mullins

Open to abuse: an offender on a Community Payback project in Slough

Open to abuse: an offender on a Community Payback project in Slough

The Government has confused the effort to engage communities in fight­ing crime with inviting min­ority groups to humiliate offenders. Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime is the title of last year’s Crime and Communities Review. Humil­i­ating offenders is one of its out­comes.

Its motivation has been good. It has listened to the often-neglected victims of crime. It has paid attention to a widespread fear that the criminal-justice system is soft on offenders. But it has not balanced this with past experience. It has not listened enough to those who work with offenders. It has also not taken into account how inaccurate much popular perception is.

The Government has begun by reforming community sentences. Offenders have long been sentenced to unpaid work, such as painting community centres, helping in char­ity shops, and maintaining church­yards as conservation areas.

It has concluded that justice needs to be seen to be done here much more clearly than in the past. The phrase “unpaid work” has been re­placed by “Community Payback”. This should now be visible and de­manding. Of­fenders must wear high-visibility jackets with “Com­munity Payback” emblazoned on them.

The immediate result could have been predicted. The National Association of Probation Officers reports dozens of cases of offenders being abused. One group of youths taunted some of them as “nonces, smackheads, and low-lifes”. Objects have even been thrown at them.

So it is not a surprise that many organisations that host placements have taken the option to refuse to have the jackets worn. So many have done this in our area that the Humberside Probation Trust has been obliged to write to ask these hosts to change their minds — ap­par­ently under pressure from those in government who are not happy that its policy is being undermined.

One of our churches drew attention to the comments left on news websites by supporters of the high-visibility jackets. These were not gentle welcomes for the oppor­tunity for better community aware­ness. They were almost all strident welcomes for the possibility of deliv­ering humiliation and retribution.

They continue this month, warning the “scumbags” that they might be mugged, calling for prison chain-gangs, and saying things such as: “Send them up to my posh estate, not to clean up, just so we can poke them with sticks and throw things at them.”

The church replied: “Those undertaking unpaid work with us will do so in a Christian churchyard, which is not a place in which to make a public spectacle of those making reparation, and thus expose them not only to those who may be comforted by the greater visibility of the justice system, but also those who wish to gloat over or even possibly harass them.”

YET things have got worse. Our local authority is now one of the pilot areas for a further experiment, in which those who wish to humiliate offenders are to be among those given a voice in what sort of com­munity punishment the offend­ers undertake.

In the first step, the Probation Service has had to put up five projects, which have been voted upon online and by phone, to decide which is to be carried out. The Gov­ern­ment appears to have selected exactly the method of consultation most likely to give those voices a dispropor­tionate say.

It will continue to maintain that its intention is to strengthen public confidence in the justice system by making sure that people know that community punishment is a tough option. In doing so, it fails to take into account the real motivation of many of the voices it will then have to heed.

I had thought that a quiet but well orchestrated church initiative could maximise the votes cast for construc­tive projects, in which offenders can take pride and learn skills, rather than for those that are menial or that put the offenders on display.

Not so: such tactics had been foreseen and carefully sidestepped. All five projects in our area involve public places that are filthy and need clearing up. The online voting system did not provide an option for “none of the above” — although an alternative phone number did connect to an answering machine. I shall wait to see whether my constructive com­ment on the answerphone will be treated as a “spoilt paper”.

what is good for one minority voice is good for another, however. There are simple things that Christian people can do. We should take part in the voting, and at least try to out-vote the vicious voices, and out-manoeuvre the politicians. As well as getting involved in victim-support, we could also try to remember to stop, praise, and thank anyone we see working in a Com­munity Payback jacket.

Of course, it is extraordinarily difficult getting the policy balance right. But I could suggest a simple but potentially effective rule of thumb: watch whose company you keep. If those who say they defend traditional values accuse your policy of giving too much attention to tax-collectors and sinners, you are keep­ing good company. If those who support your policies describe of­fend­ers as “low-lifes” and “scum­bags”, you know at once how bad is the company into which you have fallen.

Canon Peter Mullins is Rural Dean of Grimsby and Cleethorpes.

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