Probation service puts offenders on display

Delinquents sentenced to a community service of street cleaning or gardening will now be marked out to the public as offenders. PHILIP HOFMAN reports on a controversial new vest that shows how criminals “work for society.”

Delinquents sentenced to carry out community work will no longer be able to do so in relative anonymity. From now on, they will be weeding parks and removing graffiti wearing high visibility jackets with the phrase "Werkt voor de samenleving" (Works for society) printed on the back. The idea was inspired by the Community Payback scheme in Britain, which forces offenders to pay the local community back for their crimes with unpaid labour while wearing jackets emblazoned with the name of the scheme. Reclassering Nederland, the national probation service, has given regional branch offices the green light to introduce similar jackets here. It hopes it will improve the unfavourable public image of community service sentences. Most people view community service as a soft punishment, says Reclassering Nederland Chairman Sjef van Gennip. Despite scientific research showing re-offending rates are lower after community service in comparison to serving time, jail sentences are seen as more effective by the public.

It is a misconception that has taken root because citizens do not have a good understanding of what a community sentence actually is, says Van Gennip. Showing convicts doing community work in public might create a better understanding of the benefits of the sentences. Benefits, he assures, that should not be underestimated. Many of those sentenced to community service do not have any discipline, according to Van Gennip, and are not used to “rolling up their sleeves” for work. Community service breaks that pattern. “They have to turn up early in the morning and be under strict supervision. We think it is good to show this to people in the Netherlands.” Not everybody agrees. Critics warn that publicly marking out criminals, even if it is just for the duration of their work sentence, is stigmatising and sets them apart from society. That might hinder Reclassering Nederland’s mission to reduce recidivism and its efforts to encourage convicts to become responsible, law-abiding citizens.

Anonymous weeding
According to a 1 August editorial in Trouw newspaper, the new jacket scheme may be hijacked by politicians out to please voters calling for tougher sentences. Trouw argues that despite the honourable intentions behind the measure, its early reception by politicians shows an undesirable tendency to turn it into a way to shame criminals and increase the impact of their punishment. The article specifically cites CDA parliamentarian Cöskun Cörüz, who praised the bright orange vests for lifting convicts from anonymity and making them visible. “Anonymous weeding is no punishment,” he told the newspaper. While there is nothing wrong with giving the public a better understanding of the nature of community sentences, it is undeniable that wearing the garment while carrying out community service makes the punishment heavier, says NRC Handelsblad’s legal reporter and former editor Folkert Jensma in his “Law and administration blog” on 5 August. “De facto one is put on show on the street. That is a form of social separation.”

Positive response
Reclassering Nederland, however, highlights the advantages of quick community sentences served out in public using the Tilburg Funfair as an example. Troublemakers were brought before the prosecutor after spending the night in jail and were told to report to their local probation office the next day to clear litter from the fair. Foreman Hans Ruyters from Tilburg’s probation service says that making local delinquents sweep the streets got a positive response from the public. “The convicts wear the familiar green-yellow jackets of the probation service making it visible to all: those who do wrong have to do community service. The offender gets a fitting punishment and the public feels satisfied.” He says it has a good effect on offenders too. “I estimate that I do not see 95 percent of the convicts ever again for a community service sentence. They have been frightened [to stay out of trouble] and have really learned from it.”

Public justice
Jensma says in his NRC blog that it has been known for many years that a high probability of getting caught and swift punishments is a more effective approach to fighting crime than publicly shaming offenders. “A quick community service sentence is better for all concerned than one that must be recognisable at all costs.” It is unlikely however that the new policy will raise many critical questions in parliament. There seems to be support for the jackets among government and opposition parties alike. Issuing tougher sentences and promoting the interests of victims over the rights of suspects and perpetrators has been a recurring theme in Dutch politics for the past decade. It will be interesting to see if the new criminal dress code will have any measurable impact on recidivism and the acceptance of community service sentences. If both increase, the public has to decide what it finds more important: less crime or the satisfaction of seeing punishment meted out in public.