LEADING ARTICLE:An own goal for Cantona?

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The Independent Online
Eric Cantona is not exactly everybody's idea of an ideal role model. This is, after all, the man who threw a pair of boots at his team captain, called his national team manager a "bag of shit" and executed a fairly vicious kung-fu style kick on an uncouth fan for which he was convicted of common assault. So how appropriate is the punishment, which he began yesterday, of giving soccer lessons to schoolboys?

Making the punishment fit the crime is one thing. But are we ready for young businessmen's classes in share support operations from Ernest Saunders? Or tips for London cabbies on how to handle difficult customers from the Marquis of Blandford? And what of A Punter's Guide to Tax Avoidance by Lester Piggott? Perhaps we could extend the notion to the civil courts and, instead of the loser in a libel case paying costs, we might have the Gillian Taylforth Young Girl's Handbook of Discreet Sexual Acts.

When Cantona was given his original jail sentence there were cries of foul because the ordinary yob-in-the-street would have got off more lightly. So it is surely fair to ask why he is merely giving masterclasses from the comparative comfort of the Manchester United training ground, instead of cleaning out the local canal.

Or is it? The whole point of community service is that it is not a blunt instrument of retribution. It is more sophisticated than that. Yes, it is a punishment; it deprives the offender of up to 21 hours a week of leisure time. But it also instills discipline. And it involves reparation to society with the offender cleaning up the local environment, refurbishing community centres or working with charities. In the best cases it involves rehabilitation - a number of offenders, especially those working with handicapped or elderly people, carry on with the work voluntarily after the sentence is complete.

Since it was introduced in 1976 the system has proved an enormous success. Magistrates see it as a credible alternative to imprisoning someone at an average cost to the taxpayer of £435 a week. Around 100,000 offenders have avoided jail. And research suggests a significantly less serious reconviction rate than for similar offenders who went to prison.

Sadly, all that is not enough for a Home Secretary whose favourite penal soundbite is "prison works". As part of his "no more safari holidays" policy of talking tough on everything, he is proposing new rules to make the system more restrictive and replace the softy social worker probation officers who implement it with ex-army NCOs who would create something closer to a chain gang. Under it Cantona would today be probably be picking up the litter at Manchester City's Maine Road ground. And who would be better off for that?