A let-off for criminals or a useful correction?

With Naomi Campbell emerging from five days of community service wearing a sequin-encrusted evening gown, it is easy for the public to see such sentences as a soft option. Crime correspondent BEN KENDALL found out how the system operates in Norfolk.

Community service - or unpaid work for the community as it is now officially known - has never been far from controversy. Whether it is criminals caught slacking by newspaper photographers or celebrities appearing to turn the system into a farce, it is often regarded as a “let-off” compared to jail.

But love it or loathe it, it is here to stay, with probation services in Norfolk reporting a dramatic rise in the number of people on community sentences in recent years.

On any given day nearly 800 people work on projects ranging from helping charities to gardening for elderly people.

One such project is the refurbishment of the Break charity care and respite centre at Long Stratton which was completed last week.

A 37-year-old man given a community order after being convicted for threatening behaviour was part of the team that painted respite bedrooms and carried out work in the garden. He has undergone numerous previous punishments, including jail terms.

He has also completed community orders in the past so for some the fact that he was in trouble once again would serve as proof the system does not work. But he would not agree.

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He said: “This is hard work - it takes you away from your family and the things you would normally be doing with your time. But it is better than jail in many ways because it is not as disruptive to your life in the long-term.”

Although education and rehabilitation play a part, the emphasis of unpaid work is very much on punishment, as Portia Griffey, unpaid work scheme manager, explains.

She said: “People do have the chance to gain skills through this work. For example they could gain experience of painting and decorating. But first and foremost this should be as much of a punishment as a custodial sentence.”

The imposition on offenders' lives is significant. It is easy to read a court report and see a 40-hour order as a lenient penalty. However, even this would take an average of three months to complete while a 160-hour order would take an entire year.

During that time, staff working alongside offenders often notice a real change in their behaviour. Probation service officer Graham Howard has been supervising teams for six years.

“Often on their first day an individual may come across as a bit of a hard nut and you wonder how they're going to benefit,” he said.

“But it's like any other kind of work; once they become part of a team and realise the value of their work, their attitude soon changes.

“A lot of young people aren't used to working and having a routine. For many just having to get up for 9am and having somewhere to go is a dramatic change.

“Of course after so many years in the job, I have seen people reoffend and come back time and again. But eventually something just seems to click and, although an order may not have been successful in the past, they will suddenly change their ways.”

His comments are borne out by statistics. According to the Home Office, the reconviction rate for those on community orders is around 40pc while the figure for prisoners is more than 60pc. Even taking account of the fact that the former group are often first-time or less serious offenders, this suggests the orders have some benefits.

The other benefit of course is to the organisations and individuals which benefit from the work. At Break managers were initially wary of the public perception of offenders working on projects. However, after ensuring certain precautions were in place, they soon became convinced of the advantages.

Jason Mitchell, housekeeper and caretaker at the Long Stratton centre, said: “Generally the quality of the work and the attitude of the participants is excellent.

“As a charity we only have a limited amount of money available and, if it wasn't for community orders, I would have to do all the work myself. That would mean certain jobs might not get done and others would take much longer.”

OFFENDERS' STORIES

t One 21-year-old man was first sentenced to a 90-hour community punishments order in February 2005 for criminal damage. For two breaches of his order, he was arrested and ordered to do an extra 70 hours' service. Since then his attitude has changed and he said: “I'm glad I was arrested”. He has attended work twice a week and has also sought treatment for his drug addiction. Because of his commitment to community work, he was given the chance to join a painting and decorating work group which will allow him to gain a qualification. He hopes to enrol on a course and find a job in construction.

t A female offender was given a 240-hour order which she completed in just three months because she wanted to work most days. She was given a placement with the East Anglia's Children's Hospices at its warehouse near Thetford. Upon completion of her order she stayed on as a volunteer. During her time there she impressed staff with her organisational skills and suggestions - particularly on how the warehouse could be rearranged. As a result the charity has given her paid work as the manager of one of its shops.

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