Home Secretary Charles Clarke wants to increase dramatically the number of community sentences given to convicted offenders. While it will undoubtedly have the happy consequence of curbing over-crowding in Britain's prisons, is it a soft option for offenders? Emma Pinch reports...
Ten years from now, if the Home Secretary has his way, the sight of a yellow-jacketed offender cheerfully painting fences will be a familiar sight.
No old people's home will be complete without a sensory garden, built by a company of men working at Her Majesty's pleasure, and graffiti will be scrubbed clean almost before it's sprayed.
Best of all, thanks to their proximity to the community they've transgressed, they will have no urge to sin again.
Will it cut reoffending and is it really justice?
In a recent address to Birmingham University, Mr Clarke said while he wanted the 40,000 or so 'potentially dangerous' individuals locked up for longer, the rest were owed better health, housing and employment help.
He admitted his idea was thought by some to be Utopian. But he is convinced it is an achievable way of drastically cutting the rates of reoffending.
"There are 78,000 people in prison and 40,000 are potentially dangerous people," he said. "For these 40,000, I want to think about them staying in prison longer and all the others working in a better way."
That 'better way', he said, meant much wider use of community sentences.
In the West Midlands each year, 10,000 offenders serve out their sentences in the community performing 300,000 hours of unpaid work.
The new incarnation of Mr Clarke's scheme will be called 'Community Payback'. The Home Secretary said he believed the prospect of unpaid work will be a "frightening" deterrent for criminals.
"If you have to work rather than hang around in a prison cell, I think that is tougher," he said. "I actually believe the work is virtuous in this sense."
With the launch of a five-year strategy in February, Mr Clarke unveiled plans to increase the hours of unpaid work carried out by offenders to ten million by 2011.
The five-year plan states that short prison sentences given to petty offenders are not effective at preventing reoffending. Ministers hope the courts will give many of these minor offenders new, tougher community sentence and that those who do go to jail will be given only a "short exposure" to prison.
Hilary Thompson, chief officer for West Midlands Probation Area, said the level of intervention in an offender's life during the community sentence was upped according to the level of risk they posed to the public.
"Community sentencing can be more physically and emotionally demanding than prison, as offenders cannot hide from the problems that may have contributed to their offending," said Ms Thompson.
"In the vast majority of cases, people are more likely to change their behaviour if they stay in regular contact with their families and other support networks, solve the difficulties facing them, and become better integrated in society."
The sentence might include unpaid work - where offenders carry out tasks of between 40 and 300 hours - plus specified activities like basic skills education, training and employment packages.
They might also be compelled to attend programmes designed to address the attitudes and patterns of behaviour that contribute to offending.
It can also include prohibition - banning activities during a specified period, curfew and treatment for drug or alcohol misuse.
In the West Midlands during 2005/06, more than 3,000 offenders gained basic skills awards and more than 200 completed their drug rehabilitation. Of community penalties made, 82 per cent of offenders complied with their order.
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