washingtonpost.com
In Britain, the Stain of Orange
Some See Offenders' 'Vests of Shame' as Unfair Punishment

By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 3, 2009

LONDON

Like moths attracted to a bright light, the British are suddenly enthralled by the site of criminals picking up trash along roadsides or scrubbing graffiti off buildings.

The new fluorescent-orange vests help. And so do the purple letters on front and back: "Community Payback."

The British government announced last month that offenders sentenced to community service would have to slip on luminous orange coverups while whittling away their hours. The jackets, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said, will debunk the myth that community service is a soft option and will help "the public to see that justice is being done."

Previously, offenders sentenced to community service wore ordinary clothes on the job. That allowed them to blend in with the crowd -- and most did, with a few exceptions, such as supermodel Naomi Campbell, who worked at a homeless shelter last year to serve part of the 200-hour sentence she received for kicking and spitting at a police officer at Heathrow Airport.

The new attire -- or "vests of shame," as christened by the tabloids -- has touched off a debate about the rights of criminals and what constitutes fair punishment.

According to a survey published this week by Britain's National Association of Probation Officers, 75 percent of the groups that host placements, including churches and community centers, are refusing to hand out the vests. Some charities called the clothes demeaning; others said that highlighting a cluster of convicts scraping paint off a side wall was a deterrent to business.

Human rights groups argue that the vests are degrading, a throwback to less civilized times. The color orange has invoked comparisons to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Columnist Zoe Williams wrote in the Guardian that the uniform has "resonances of the Nazi yellow badge."

Many people writing in letters pages and on message boards have agreed with most of that -- but said criminals should wear them anyway. Writing on the Times of London Web site, Joseph Taylor of London said, "They should feel humiliated, belittled and generally demeaned; they are criminals."

And then there's that phrase: Community Payback. Those in the anti-vest camp suggest that it sounds like the title of a straight-to-DVD action movie. Charlie Brooker, a sardonic columnist in the Guardian, suggested that the label "Scum Slave" on a green leotard might be more effective.

One 25-year-old offender said he felt singled out enough without any leotard. "They might as well put a sign around your neck telling everyone what you've done," he told the Daily Mirror on a recent day, as he snipped hedges as part of his punishment. "I don't want to go through this again."

The probation officers' union said it feared offenders would be subject to intimidation and even vigilante attacks.

The Labor government has for years wrestled with the idea of the vests, which cost about $3 each. At the launch event, Straw explained to reporters that the jackets were not, in fact, "medieval," nor were they akin to "the stocks" -- a popular form of punishment here in the 18th century. (In the stocks, petty criminals were clamped between wooden boards and placed in a common area where the public would jeer, throw rotten fruit at them and tickle their feet.)

The government says most of the 70,000 offenders currently sentenced to unpaid community work are sartorially within the law. Those who flout the vest requirement receive a warning. If they do so twice, they are sent back to court, where they can face harsher sentences. Only one person has been recalled to court.

Some of the most gleeful supporters of the uniform have wondered aloud whether it might be extended to other members of society. Writing on the Times of London Web site, Peter James of Nottingham said: "Oooo. Goody. Can we have orange jackets for merchant bankers?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company