My ‘Payback jackets’ plan has worn well

High-visibility orange jackets for offenders to wear when doing unpaid work as part of their punishment were introduced a year ago this Tuesday.

The jackets do not have the old prison arrows on them or “I’m a criminal” but they do say, front and back, “Community Payback”. That’s to tell the public why they are there – making recompenses, paying back, to the community against which they’ve offended.

Doing this was my decision. When I first announced this in the autumn of last year, there was a chorus of protest from some quarters (though none from East Lancashire). Requiring offenders to wear these jackets would be ‘recreating chain gangs’, ‘humiliating to offenders’ and, what’s more, I was warned, offenders would be subject to attack by passers-by.

A year later, and not a peep from the critics. The scheme has worked. I’ve spoken to many offenders whilst wearing the jackets. Some say they don’t like them; some have no view; but a surprisingly large number have volunteered to me that it’s part of the punishment, and that only they were to blame for committing their crimes in the first place. And I’ve not been made aware of a single attack on the offenders wearing the jackets.

As for ‘humiliation’, it’s the humiliation of the victim we should think about. They have no choice over their humiliation. Those who have committed the crimes did have a choice – and if through wearing the orange jacket they feel a greater sense of shame, and that strengthens their resolve not to offend again, that is a good thing.

Most importantly of all, the public now have a much better idea of what a “community punishment” from the courts means in practice. And in many areas local people can vote on which schemes they want offenders to work – doing things like cleaning graffiti, redecorations of community centres, tending gardens of the elderly and disabled.

This scheme, by which the public choose, is now being extended to young offenders as part of a new Youth Rehabilitation order, which has been available to youth courts from this week. It is a further stage in the strengthening of the youth justice service.

These reforms have overall been successful. Like many others including, ASBOs, they began in Blackburn. In the mid-1990s I’d received complaints from youth court magistrates and police alike, as well as victims, about the ‘revolving door’ of the courts by which same young offenders came round and around again and again without much effective punishment and reform in between. I then watched the youth court in operation, and saw for myself why magistrates and police were so frustrated.

Some offenders will always be beyond the pale – the ones who however cocky and selfish in their youth, end up with long jail sentences in their 20s and 30s.

But overall we are turning offenders away from crime. The statistics tell the story – between 2000 and 2007 serious re-offending by juveniles fell by nearly 20 per cent. But it’s the reduction in crime and its effect as a result on our communities which really matters.