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Community Service to Unpaid Work – a 50 year journey
John Harding marks the 50 year anniversary of unpaid work by recounting the very first court order.

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50 years of unpaid work

This is a guest post by John Harding, CBE, Pictured below) ex Chief Probation Officer for Inner London, who directed the first Home Office pilot for community service orders in Nottinghamshire from 1972 – 1974.

In a recent report, Phil Bowen, the director of the Centre for Justice Innovation outlined the future of unpaid work as the tasks have been returned from privatisation to public service ownership again. Bowen recommends that HMPPS should develop new hyper – local partnerships that engage and involve community groups in identifying work that needs to be done and visibly demonstrates that justice systems pay back.

As the senior probation officer responsible for the Home Office community service pilot in the Nottinghamshire probation service from 1972 – 74 I can reassure Bowen that there is nothing new in this philosophy first endorsed by the redoubtable Baroness Wootton’s legislative case for community service and followed through by the 6 pilot area innovations. In Nottinghamshire, before the first community service order in the world was made on 2 January 1973 in the Nottingham Crown Court, we had set out four objectives from the outset:

  1. Community service should be a worthwhile experience for the offender.
  2. Community service should offer tangible benefits to the community or a section of the community.
  3. Community service should take place in or near persons locality with some exceptions.
  4. Community service should offer the participants an opportunity to continue service after the expiration of the order.

In respect of the last point, I was particularly influenced by the New Careers model from the United States developed in urban settings  in the sixties, whereby local people with the experience of a criminal record, mental health issues or unemployment were trained up to take up helping roles. Instead of making people recipients of help why not ask them to be dispensers of help and thus gain status and approval for their actions.

Peter, the first community service offender, told me, 40 years later, that community service had a positive outcome for him after he completed 120 hours in an old people’s home. He spent most of his career working with emotionally disturbed adolescents in a residential centre. Jim, a gas fitter, was driving with his fiancée when hit a telegraph pole. She was killed outright.He wanted to go to prison. Instead, he was given a 240 hour order. He spent his time as a nursing aide on the A&E ward of a Nottingham hospital. Later, he applied for nursing training and was accepted. Richard, aged 20, was given 200 hours at the Crown Court for violent offences. He went on to university, got a degree and studied to be a probation officer. Years later, I had a call from David Mellor, the then Home Office Minister, seeking reassurance that Richard had come to terms with his past. I told them he had and Richard became a probation officer in Hampshire, working very effectively with offenders under supervision until his death in 2011.

Bowen also found that unpaid work supervisors felt unappreciated by qualified probation officers. There’s nothing new here. I recall one probation officer calling such supervisors,  ‘screws on wheels’. However the majority of probation officers in Nottinghamshire could make some sense of community partnerships, particularly when  linked with organisations like the local council of voluntary service. Paul, a supervisor who was also an art student, worked with a small group of offenders in an old persons houses, painting and decorating. While supervising, he also sketched some of the beneficiaries much to  the fascination of the group. (See the portrait of an old lady below).

Unpaid work as overseas aid

In 2000, community service staff in Inner London Probation undertook a large commission with the orphanages of Romania. I had forged an agreement with Sir John Stevens, the then Metropolitan Commissioner, to agree a three-year mission of goods, services and volunteer staff to orphanages in Romania in Constanza and Bucharest. The first convoy in May 2000 consisted of 15 fully articulated lorries, driven by police officers who journeyed from London to Romania.

The probation service’s contribution to the first convoy involved large scale, logistical exercises. Don Gibbs, a carpenter by trade and the manager of the community service workshops in Inner London, did an assessment in Bucharest before the convoy commenced on what needed to be done. Over a period of nine months before the convoy set off, workshop-based community service offenders, under supervision, built 75 bunk beds (see the image below) and made adventure playground equipment, including swings, climbing frames and wooden toys. Police and probation staff also persuaded London based wholesale outlets to donate duvets, pillows soft furnishings and building supplies.

We obtained Home Office permission with the backing of Sir John Stevens for four community service offenders to take part with other probation officers and police volunteers in the orphanage programme of providing new services for the children. The police participants were stunned by the quality of the goods produced by the offenders ,often with little practical skills, and how they can be taught how to use equipment safely and  achieve high standards of quality and finish. For offenders, dozens of them, gained the satisfaction of producing equipment for a social purpose and also acquiring foundation skills in the world of work.

Bowen in his review makes the point that unpaid work ought to be purposeful, visible and vibrant. 50 years on its still the aim. Despite government rebranding and tinkering at the behest of penal populists, community service/unpaid work still survives as a credible option in the sentencing arena. For me, it remains an excellent casebook example of the management of change in the legal process.

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