Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Monday, 1 December 2008

Offenders to wear community vests

Offender wearing a vest
Critics say wearing brightly-coloured vests will encourage attacks

Thousands of offenders in England and Wales are to wear high visibility vests while doing community service.

Ministers have ordered 10,000 orange bibs with "Community Payback" on the back identifying them to the public.

The government hopes the uniforms will increase confidence in community-based punishments which are seen by some as a soft option compared to prison.

But probation officers warn the vests could "increase the risk" of offenders becoming targets for attacks.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, told the BBC's Today programme: "Wearing the so-called vests of shame introduces unnecessary risk."

There were already instances where offenders doing community service had been targeted by rival gangs for attack, he said, and in two cases offenders had been shot.

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

He also said there was no evidence that shaming worked and that if offenders were concerned for their safety, compliance would drop and cases would end up back in the courts.

"The real intention of the vests is to make the government look tougher on crime and to demean the offenders," he added.

But Justice Secretary Jack Straw defended the use of the vests and said if there were genuine concerns for the safety of staff or offenders in particular cases, consideration would be given as to whether the jackets were appropriate.

"I have looked at the details of the attacks that have taken place. Always they have taken place not because the offender has been wearing any kind of visible clothing... but because they are known to their attacker," he told the BBC's Today programme.

He added: "The purpose of having these high-visibility jackets is, above all, to strengthen the confidence of the public in community punishments because too few of the public believe at the moment these are effective and are other than a soft option."

'Bullying fears'

David Scott, Chair of the Probation Chiefs Association which represents the profession's leaders, said: "We welcome anything that promotes public confidence in our work. Probation chiefs will be working very closely with our diverse communities to ensure that High Visibility Vests (HVVs)are appropriately implemented to reduce reoffending and protect the public.


Why should we be pointed out like saying we are all criminals and stuff?
Young offender

"But we have reservations about the practicality of implementing high visibility uniforms across the board, as well as major questions about their suitability in some instances."

Mr Scott reiterated concerns about reprisal attacks and said children could be bullied if their parent is readily identifiable in a small community because of the new scheme.

"There is also the risk of the loss of valued local community schemes in rural areas because it will not be possible to run separate groups for 16 and 17 year olds. These would be required if offenders aged 17 are to wear HVVs."

Young offenders helping to clear a towpath by the River Thames near Hampton Court Palace in south-west London were some of the first to wear the new bibs on Monday.

One told BBC Five Live: "We have got a board... already saying who we are, so why should we be pointed out like saying we are all criminals and stuff?

"People know it already, so why make it even worse."

But another did not object, saying the group had already been wearing yellow ones anyway.

"It is better then being inside [prison] so anything will do," he said.

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