Community work for knife crime is crazy

Rain stopped play. These are three words that every cricket or tennis fan dreads to hear during the summer months.  But last week we learned that offenders serving community sentences can also seek shelter indoors from a downpour.

Michael Chambers, a 55-year-old convict from Eastbourne, told a judge in Lewes Crown Court that he did not turn up for his community sentence because he was fed up of doing nothing.  In response, the Sussex Probation Service said that Mr Chambers had been working on a project to clear up rubbish, but due to "very heavy rainfall" it was "unsuitable" for the offenders to carry on in those conditions, and so they cut short their work.

Frankly, this is pathetic.  It demonstrates why community sentences like the so-called unpaid ‘work' command little public confidence in their current form.  And yet the Government has pressed courts to hand down increasing numbers of these sentences, even for offences such as burglary, because Ministers have failed to provide adequate prison capacity.

A recent report by the independent National Audit Office examined community sentences and found that of the excuses accepted by probation officers as adequate reasons for offenders not turning, in almost one in ten cases, offenders claimed that they had either forgotten, were "confused", or had just overslept.  Of the 94,000 offenders who commenced unpaid work requirements under probation supervision during 2006-07, only 42,000 completed them.

How can a punishment be optional?  We don't ask prisoners if they'd mind staying in jail - except of course at Ford Prison.  Community penalties aren't penalties at all unless they are enforced.

While a majority of crime victims would support community sentences if they prevented criminals from re-offending, less than a third of the public actually believe that community sentences are better than prison in reducing re-offending.  The National Audit Office itself has said that the evidence that community sentences reduce re-offending is weak or inclusive.

There's a place for community sentences to deal with offenders whose crimes do not warrant a custodial sentence and where treatment in the community offers a better chance of rehabilitation.  But these disposals must be stringent and they must never be used simply because there aren't enough cells.

We need a new approach to community sentences that provides courts with a tough and effective alternative.  Reformed community sentences require better enforcement and more power to probation officers to sanction breaches, so that oversleeping is never an excuse for non-attendance.  We need more effective sanctions, including benefit withdrawal for those who don't turn up.

Offenders should wear high-visibility overalls when serving a community sentence.  Better visibility would both maximise the deterrent effect and signal to local people where and when offenders were making amends for their crimes.  The Government has talked about implementing this change more than once, but nothing has happened.  And we should require unemployed offenders on community sentences to sign up with work providers to get them into jobs once they have served their sentence.

Only once we have effective community sentences, to go alongside prison, can we begin to tackle high levels of youth crime.   In contrast, the Government seems content to promote community sentences at every opportunity, even when the problem is as serious as knife crime.

The incoming Lord Chief Justice, Sir Igor Judge, has claimed that knife crime has now reached "epidemic" proportions.  Yesterday, the Argus revealed that fewer than a fifth of criminals convicted of knife possession in Sussex receive a custodial sentence.  This proves why we need a zero tolerance approach.  The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has called for mandatory minimum sentences for the carrying of a knives - a call backed by the Argus' ‘Knives Costs Lives' campaign.

Courts should retain discretion, but David Cameron has said that people who are caught carrying a knife in public without lawful excuse should expect to go to jail.  A tough community penalty might be appropriate in exceptional cases, but a fine won't do.

You would think that any Home Secretary would favour a tough approach.  But yesterday Jacqui Smith - herself afraid to go out alone at night - condemned the use of prison, announcing instead that her latest anti-knife initiative will require young offenders who carry knives to visit A&E wards as part of a community sentence to see the victims of stabbings.  In place of firm action we have government by gimmick.  Promising community sentences to deal with knife crime is just hopeless.

Of course knife crime needs a range of measures, including long term social action to deal with the causes.  But it also needs determined enforcement.  While we have a Government which falls back on feeble community sentences, rather than being willing to tackle prison reform, young men will still carry knives and believe they can get away with it.

Michelle Taylorcrime