Community service to benefit the environment

The traditional penal work of rock breaking and sewing of mail bags might be long gone but conservation schemes and carbon reduction initiatives are now taking their place as the type of activity convicted criminals can be expected to engage in as they pay their debt to society.

According to Justice Minister Gerry Sutcliffe, community service sentences with an environmental flavour can significantly reduce re-offending rates and help to rehabilitation by providing a sense of pride and purpose.

Speaking at an event held to introduce the probation service to the Justice Department's new push for environmental community service, Planet Payback, Mr Sutcliffe said that while prison would always be the right place for offenders who are dangerous to the public, non-custodial sentences for less serious crimes provided a viable, cheaper and frankly more effective alternative to a short spell behind bars.

"It's about making the work rewarding and trying to reduce re-offending rates," he told edie.

"Yes, there's an element of punishment but the important thing is trying to get people back into society."

He acknowledged that community service with an environmental twist had been around for a while but said that Planet Payback was about raising its profile and ensuring magistrates considered it amongst the range of penalties available.

"This is not a completely new initiative, the probation service has been working successfully with environmental providers for years," he said.

"But this is about developing opportunities further."

Environmental community service had been remarkably effective at reducing re-offending rates, he said, saying that the predicted likelihood for those receiving such orders to go on to commit more crimes had been 43.5% but the actual rate had been significantly lower at 37.9%.

"The challenge for the probation service is to turn the offender into a citizen," he said.

"It gives offenders new skills and benefits the community but also contributes to wider Government strategies like helping the environment and sustainable development.

"Not only does this help with global issues like climate change but addresses the benefits that contact with nature and green spaces can bring to society."

Unlike some community-based sentences, offenders often take pride in the work they are asked to carry out and Mr Sutcliffe spoke of several instances he was aware of when they had continued to do the work voluntarily once the order was over or taken family members to see what they had achieved.

He also said there was a possibility of making the punishment fit the crime by giving these kind of service orders to environmental offenders like fly tippers.

He said: "you could have that element of restorative justice."

Sam Bond



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