Headlines: July 9th, 2009

A new study is warning that making young offenders wear high-visibility vests as they carry out community service could backfire. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth say it could result in more young people being locked up and might lead to vigilante-style attacks on the offenders, their supervisors and community projects, including the grounds of schools and churches where they are working.

Adult criminals on community service sentences have had to wear bright orange vests with ‘Community Payback’ in bold lettering on the front and back since last December. Although the Youth Justice Board has no plans to introduce the measure for 10 to 17 year old offenders the idea has been suggested as part of the government’s ‘Justice Seen, Justice Done’ campaign.

The research by Nicholas Pamment and Tom Ellis, of the university’s Institute of Criminal Justice Studies says this would be a backwards step. “‘Branding offenders is designed to make them feel shame and bring condemnation on them but it risks creating a class of outcasts,” Mr Pamment said. “Community service supervisors say identifying these youngsters as criminals is likely to attract violent attacks which will endanger staff and the projects as well,” he added.

The researchers say the high visibility vests focus on ‘disintegrative’ rather than ‘re-integrative’ shaming. The vests humiliate and isolate offenders and publicly label them as delinquent, making it less likely they will be able to re-join their communities once they have paid for their crimes.

The new study is published in the Howard Journal and is based on the views of offenders and their supervisors in a Youth Offending Team. The researchers say that although their sample size is small, this is the most systematic and in-depth study on the subject and that its points clearly to the likely problems if wearing high visibility vests is made compulsory.