The Ministry of Justice has announced changes to community service guidelines which it says will see offenders performing “hard labour”.
But now there are concerns that the changes - ostensibly introduced to rehabilitate offenders and ‘help break the cycle of crime’ - look suspiciously like cost-saving measures.
The changes refer to the Community Payback scheme, non-custodial sentences that require offenders to carry out manual labour including cleaning graffiti and clearing up litter.
The MOJ says about 100,000 individuals are sentenced to Community Payback each year across England and Wales, and that nearly 9 million hours of unpaid work were completed in the last twelve months.
Some have questioned, however, how much work those on the scheme actually do.
Under the new proposals offenders will be forced to work as a minimum of 28 hours over four days, with the fifth day spent looking for full time employment. Previously the guidelines allowed for offenders to work as little as 8 hours a week over a year.
The Minister for Prisons and Probation, Crispin Blunt, emphasised both the punitive and the remedial effects of these proposals, saying: “The public...are rightly not satisfied with seeing only a handful of hours a week dished out... The introduction of regular, meaningful hard work is proven to help break the cycle of crime and encourage a law abiding life.”
The new proposals affect neither the amount of community payback hours meted out to offenders, nor propose to substitute custodial sentences for labour within the community. Rather they recommend a more intensive way in which they should be served, as if it is a working week.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said that these proposals were motivated by the fact that ‘intensive schemes were judged to be more successful in reducing re-offending rates’.
Since the new measures would force offenders to do their hours more intensively, the result could also be lower supervision costs. The changes come after previous proposals to involve the voluntary sector and private companies in the scheme were criticised earlier this year by a probation workers' union.
The new measures have not been piloted, however, and Paul Dowell, who is chief executive for the crime reduction charity Nacro, said that the major problem for community sentences has always been policing them, as currently attendance is extremely poor.
He said: “A revamped community payback scheme can tackle the causes of offending, but all the evidence points to those sentences working best when offenders complete them, so they must be designed so more offenders comply with them.”
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