Scheme will improve local communities and cut court costs.
Michael Jeffries, unemployed, is about to complete 200 hours of community service, canal clearing and removing graffiti from a local hospital wall. His offence: punching a neighbour in the face, after a long standing parking feud. Michael will administer the punch to his surprised neighbour next week, having scrubbed his last wall. "The punishment fits the crime perfectly," Jeffries' solicitor said. "The order in which they occur is irrelevant."
Jeffries is one of a small number taking part in a pilot scheme in Greater Manchester. 33 people are repainting poorly maintained children's playgrounds and peeling potatoes in overstretched care homes. All the while they are planning criminal damage, minor theft, disorderly conduct and sometimes, cruelty to animals.
"The idea is identical to that of paying a debt to society," said chief probation officer Nigel Krane. "Would be offenders accumulate community credit, then cancel it out with a senseless crime of their choice. The net result is the same - cleared canals, less graffiti and tidied motorway verges. Without expensive court hearings."
Conservative back bencher Colin Jenkins is an enthusiast: “We need to improve public services at a time of financial strain. And the courts are overburdened. This scheme is brilliant - creative big society Britain in action. I myself am signing up for some significant hours of Meals on Wheels, followed by a bit of perverting the course of justice!”
Meredith Lee, 42, has been beautifying roundabouts on the A6 south of Stockport. She has cleared rubbish, planted foliage and repaired fencing, clocking up 300 hours of community service. "I'm looking to retrain as a pickpocket, but I could also qualify for up to £10,000 worth of mortgage fraud if I maintain these conifers till spring. " she said. Not all those taking part have such high ambitions. 19 year old Mick Knowles from Stockport is looking forward to a short shoplifting spree after a bargain 20 hours repairing road signs: "My probation officer has just said if I do another five hours I'll have enough to urinate in the street as well, which is a bonus."
Those who volunteer in the community purely for the common good have had mixed reactions to the scheme. Olive Barnes, chair of the Cheshire Volunteers Centre sees it as an opportunity. "People like me have thousands hours of community service clocked up." I know of one church group that has started a cannabis farm, putting the proceeds into a bird sanctuary. And North Cheshire Rotary club has pooled its members' community service hours. This Halloween they will open a small brothel, with a special "trick or treat" night in Alderley Edge .