Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sir Ian Blair gets it right on community service

Now that he's leaving office Sir Ian seems to be getting it right:

Criminals ordered to work for their community should be forced to wear uniforms, Sir Ian Blair has said. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner insisted that visible punishment is the only way to convince the public the criminal justice system works. He said offenders wearing high visibility vests is "unpalatable" but could help restore confidence in the courts.
The only quibble is that ts is desirable, not unpalatable.

I learned this lesson as a young Sergeant in the early 1980's when serving in Germany. The Regiment had just moved in to an old barracks and hadn't got round to getting the jails serviceable and we had to send miscreants to another regiment if their crime received a jail sentence.

By military standards we did seem to have a high crime rate despite sending these young lads off to jail at ever increasing rates. I learned the reason when I was in the NAAFI having a beer as one of them returned from 28 days in jail with a nearby infantry regiment. He was laughing and joking about his time and became a bit of a celebrity, a bit of a "Jack-the-lad" hard man. I knew different, I had seen him in the jail and knew he had been a cowed, contrite young soldier. I realised then we might as well be sending them on leave for a month for all the good it was doing.

Anyway, we eventually got round to getting our own cells operational and what a difference it made. The first soldier to end up in there became a salutary lesson to the the rest of the lads. Seeing his daily routine was certainly a deterrence: roused o at 5:30am to start cleaning and other other onerous duties. Off to meals in full battle kit being marched at double quick time and then back at the same pace. A day full of military duties, PT and other "dirty jobs", all done at pace and under close supervision, which with a best kit inspection at 10pm. If the kit wasn't good enough then another at 10:30pm and the 6:30am if it still wasn't good enough. A cigarette ration of 2 a day also tended to be a bit of an eye opener.

As all this took place in full view of their mates they weren't scene as celebrities at their release and offending rates plummeted.

It was then I realised that any justice system needed to include 3 elements: protection of the public, punishment and deterrence. The deterrence element has to include not only deterrence for the offender to repeat their offence, but probably more importantly, deter others from committing crimes in the first place and this can't happen unless they are seen to be punished.

So what should those on community service be doing? Whatever it is it shouldn't undermine those who do the work as their normal jobs. By that I mean that street cleaning, say, shouldn't be seen as the punishment itself, it is that these offenders are doing it in their own time. So if we want them cleaning the street it should be in the evening in a city centre when that job isn't normally done and it gets maximum visibility as a deterrence. To that end any hi-vis clothing they wear should also be a different colour to that which is normally worn, pink or orange would be good choices, so that everyone knows that it is a punishment.

A word of warning though. It was easy in the Army because those young soldiers were volunteers and wanted to do the job. They also knew that the Army had the ultimate sanction of throwing them out, something we can't really do in the wider society.

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