Football is better than boot camp

Community service may not be a panacea for Britain's youth, but it can lead to repentance
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The Independent Online
On Wednesday the notorious Eric Cantona stole the headlines yet again - not for kicking someone this time, but for starting his first bout of community service: coaching Manchester schoolboys in football. Many thought he should have been punished much more severely, and that the magistrate who initially sentenced him to two weeks in jail was right. Why should Cantona be allowed to serve his punishment doing what he loves best, rather than emptying bedpans or clearing up derelict land?

Certainly if Michael Howard has his way, Cantona's may well be the last so-called ``soft option''. We are now being told that community service will be reformed to look more like military service, with boot camps instead of ball control classes. For despite being one of Britain's more successful exports, setting the trend in many European countries, community service simply does not sit well with a Conservative culture demanding retribution and visible punishment.

Evidence is ambivalent as to whether a two-week spell in prison will prove more effective in reforming behaviour than 120 hours of football coaching. Experience may not show conclusively that community service turns bad eggs into good ones, but on balance it has a better record than other punishments. We already know that if you go into prison as a petty criminal, there is a good chance you will come out a professional one.

Cantona may well learn more by coaching kids on the pitch than he would languishing in a jail with nothing to do but bottle up energy and resentment. Any schoolteacher will tell you that over-excited, boisterous schoolboys are a handful. To cope with them he'll have to learn tolerance, and how to keep his prima donna-ish temper in check.

Far from being a parody of soft liberalism, his punishment is imaginative and it is likely to work. Schemes that connect offenders to the lives of others in tangible ways seem to achieve good results. While traditional forms of community service, such as painting churches or collecting rubbish, often have absentee rates as high as 20 per cent, schemes that link offenders to the people who directly benefit - for example, caring for disabled children or taking elderly and disabled people shopping - are well attended.

One survey found that 86 per cent of offenders felt that they had gained from community service and 67 per cent said they would be prepared to turn out on a voluntary basis. True, these responses may not have been wholly honest, but other research following the experience of community service offenders in the early Eighties showed that a surprising number of offenders continued their community work after completing the sentence.

In Hereford and Worcester a third of offenders went on to volunteer, and in Nottinghamshire 14 per cent did so, though there is little evidence of the impact on recidivism.

So why is Michael Howard pandering to the prejudices of the Tory blue rinse brigade? The answer is that he seems to be playing a rather more sophisticated game. Over the next few months the hot topic on the political agenda is not going to be retributive and compulsory forms of community service for offenders, but voluntary service which promotes voluntarism and community spirit among young people.

Both main parties are expected to announce detailed proposals for voluntary forms of community service for young people. Inspired by the innovative work of the Prince's Youth Trust in finding ways of linking the unemployed to those in work, they have been devising schemes to bring potentially criminal young men back into community life, to bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots and, hopefully, to prevent crime among young unskilled, unemployed men.

Clearly, if both parties are proposing that the state should fund such a voluntary scheme, it is vital that the distinction between the two community service schemes is made - the one the product of a crime, the other a product of an individual's goodwill; the one a part of criminal punishment, the other symbolic of active, altruistic citizenship.

Unfortunately, the expectation that young unemployed people will naturally act in an altruistic way is flawed, according to research on community service and volunteer patterns of young people by Demos, the independent think-tank.

Those least likely to volunteer are those most likely to remain unemployed the longest and most likely to drift into crime. In other words, voluntary service may be great fun and very useful, but as currently conceived it is unlikely to bring down the burglary rate.

For obvious reasons, compulsory community service for non-offenders is not being considered; it would be seen as a smokescreen for penalising unemployed young people. But unless the lack of motivation of the long- term unemployed is tackled, the schemes will fail to help those most at risk of petty offending.

And there is the added irony that if compulsory community service for offenders becomes more punitive, many young unemployed offenders will have less chance to redeem themselves, less chance to learn the errors of their ways and less opportunity to reintegrate into society.

Given that so many teenagers drift in and out of crime, it is crucial that they are not told, in effect, early on that they are seen as the enemies of society. And that is ultimately why Michael Howard and the Get Tough Brigade are wrong to take such a narrow-minded view of punishment la Cantona.

Of course it is always easier to opt for out-and-out retribution. And as a society, we have never been good at turning bad behaviour into experiences on which to build good for others as well as ourselves. Yet the power of doing so is clear. When those who have committed bad deeds in turn repent - whether they are reformed drug addicts, former prisoners talking to schoolchildren or even more glamorous characters such as Cantona - it is possible to make a lasting impression on impressionable youngsters.

Over the weeks ahead, as Cantona meets more schoolboys face to face, as he coaches and, in effect, mentors them, he will become all too aware of how he is idolised, of the incredibly powerful position he has.

Perhaps he will come to see that this power needs to be used wisely if he is to become a positive moral role model, rather than just a highly paid, super-skilled football player. Maybe he will realise that he is not well placed to preach, and that his best service to these boys will be to make them think twice before kicking an opponent, a referee or a spectator instead of the football.

Indeed, it is not impossible that Cantona's most recent penalty may transform him from being one of soccer's bad boys to every youngster's moral icon: proof that it is never too late to say you are sorry and repent.