Community chain-gang plan 'a cheap gimmick'

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The Independent Online

Government proposals to make petty criminals wear distinctive uniforms while they are carrying out community sentences were dismissed yesterday as a degrading gimmick.

Government proposals to make petty criminals wear distinctive uniforms while they are carrying out community sentences were dismissed yesterday as a degrading gimmick.

The move towards US-style chain gangs was suggested by a Home Office minister, Hazel Blears, who said it would improve confidence in the criminal justice system. Experts working with the rehabilitation of offenders said in reply that public shaming was degrading and could attract the attention of vigilantes.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the idea has been trailed before but dropped because there was no evidence it would work. He added: "Introducing uniforms, caps, badges, or naming and shaming offenders is likely to degrade them, make them resentful and not turn up. This will mean the breach rate will soar and more will end up in prison, exactly what has happened in the United States."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, described the plan as a "cheap and nasty gimmick", adding: "How do you engender a culture of respect by degrading people?"

Ms Blears had told a Sunday newspaper: "People feel very strongly that they don't often see justice being done."

Tony Blair has made the fight against antisocial behaviour a key priority for the Government's third term. Last week he said he wanted to restore "respect" among all members of Britain's communities.

The Tories accepted that uniforms for offender working parties could make a "minor contribution" to public confidence in the justice system, but questioned the significance of such a proposal.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Labour have been in power for eight years and what have they done? They have permitted 24-hour drinking, let over 100,000 prisoners out of prison early, whilst at the same time making the life of a police constable on the beat more and more difficult. An idea like this may well make a minor contribution to public confidence but it will not make up for eight years of neglect of law and order."

A Home Office spokesman said: "This is something we would consider, but it is not a firm policy proposal.

"We want members of the community to have confidence that antisocial behaviour is being tackled."

But Mr Fletcher warned: "There is no evidence whatsoever that uniforms will cut crimes or enhance British protection and therefore should be quietly dropped."

Community sentences typically involve punishments such as picking up litter or removing graffiti. They are usually imposed in offenders convicted of non-violent crimes, such as burglary, theft and criminal damage.

Mr Blair promised last week that tackling yobbish behaviour would be a central aim of Labour's third term in power. He said one of the chief lessons from the election campaign was voters' worries about a loss of respect on the streets and in schools.

After eight years as Prime Minister, he painted a bleak picture of society, with increasing numbers of people feeling intimidated by vandalism, binge drinking and street corner thugs.

He said such behaviour was "out of hand''. Some town centres were "no-go" areas at night over weekends for the law-abiding majority. Some older people had a "sense of fear'' when they went to the shops, the Prime Minister said.

Tomorrow's Queen's Speech will further highlight the issue, with a violent crime Bill containing a crackdown on replica guns and knives, and banning orders for problem drinkers.