Straw defends visibility vests for offenders

LONDON (Reuters) - Offenders sentenced to community service will have to wear high visibility vests from Monday, the government said, dismissing concerns the fluorescent jackets have led to reprisal attacks on their wearers.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw addresses the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, September 21, 2008. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the jackets marked with the words “Community Payback” are designed to strengthen the public’s confidence in the effectiveness of non-custodial sentences.

“The public, the taxpayer, has an absolute right to know what unpaid work is being done to payback to them for the wrongs the offender has committed,” he said.

Probation officers say they fear the vests could put offenders at risk from reprisals and might lead some to refuse to attend community work projects.

That would force magistrates to send them to prison for non-compliance, defeating the purpose of non-custodial sentences designed to keep minor offenders out of overcrowded jails.

Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary of the probation staff union NAPO, said there had already been a number of attacks on offenders wearing high visibility vests in pilot areas in London and Liverpool, including two shootings by rival gangs.

“Our fear is that if we put the offenders in fluorescent vests they will be more easily identified and the number of attacks will rise,” he told BBC radio.

Straw said managers in probation areas could decide to withdraw the jackets if there is a well-based fear of attacks.

But he told BBC radio he had looked into the reported assaults and said the vests were not a factor in the attacks.

“They have taken place not because the offender has been wearing any kind of visible clothing ... but because they are known to their attacker.

“That is something that will be a risk ... whether they wear jackets or not.”

Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Steve Addison