'I'd rather be doing this than spending six months in jail,' reflects Steve, as he leans against his petrol-run lawnmower on the Fountains Court estate in Kirkdale, Liverpool, resting in the summer heat. The 22-year-old is wearing a bright orange jacket emblazoned with 'Community Payback' on his back. 'Some dickheads give us a bit of stick every now and again. Doesn't bother me though - they're the kind of lads who'd end up down here anyway, if you know what I mean.'
For the last fortnight, Steve has been cleaning up one of Liverpool's more troubled estates. The square of land he is clearing was formerly used by prostitutes to entertain clients. The grass has been cut, mattresses, needles, and broken glass cleared. Some of the houses on the estate are boarded up and when the community payback team first visited earlier this year it came with police protection. Today residents don't have a bad word to say about the offenders and their hard work. 'They've done far more than the council ever did,' says one.
Steve is making his amends to his own community. He was sentenced by Judge David Fletcher of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre to five weeks' community service. The judge told him it was that or jail after he was convicted of possession with intent to supply heroin. 'He's a fair man,' reckons Steve.
So, is clearing an overgrown patch of ground making him think twice about his own offending behaviour? 'Oh yeah,' Steve replies, perhaps inevitably. 'It has made me see things in a different light. Before I started I was a dead bad dope head. I don't even drink or smoke spliff any more.'
Believe Steve or not - and no one is naive about the project's prospects - a lot has been invested in trying a different approach with minor offenders. So is there any more to 'community justice' than forcing our disaffected youth into the 21st-century equivalent of chain gangs?
An unprecedented experiment
The many supporters of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre say community payback is the least interesting thing about the initiative, although the court, which pilots a range of criminal justice initiatives, has a special power to sentence offenders to 'intensive' five-days-a-week community payback as opposed to the usual one or two-day schemes.
The court represents an unprecedented experiment in the criminal justice system. Launched in 2005 at a cost of £5.2 million, it covers four local authority wards (Anfield, County, Everton and Kirkdale) with a combined population of around 65,000. Parts of the area have a worklessness rate of up to 70 per cent and more than their share of social problems. The court takes its inspiration from one on the other side of the Atlantic, the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn.
The Red Hook court is credited with contributing to the regeneration of a part of Brooklyn that Life magazine once labelled as one of America's most 'crack-infested' areas. It now has the safest police precinct in Brooklyn. In 2002 the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf visited Red Hook and was suitably impressed. A trip by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, followed and he returned convinced that a new approach was needed.
Three years ago the government's vision was for a network of 'problem-solving' US-style community justice centres tackling offending behaviour but also listening to what communities expect from their courts. North Liverpool is the only court centre built on that model, despite a proliferation of so-called community justice centres that have adoped elements of that approach.
The North Liverpool Community Justice Centre, based in a former secondary school on Boundary Lane in Kirkdale, is designed-for-purpose and has none of the air and smell of neglect that pervades typical magistrates' courts. The courtroom is all pale pines and shiny chromes and there is a smart glass-walled interview room outside. Upstairs there is a modern open plan admin office with a Citizens Advice Bureau.
The centre is close to the heart of the community that it seeks to serve and a ten-minute walk from the troubled Fountains Court. There are some 60 staff, including all the main support services (such as probation officers, Citizens Advice, drug treatment officers and so on) on site. This means offenders' cases are dealt with without delay and their other needs, from addiction treatments to housing benefit claims, can be dealt with promptly.
Crucially, one judge, David Fletcher, presides over all cases. His court sits as magistrates' court, youth court and crown court. Fletcher has special sentencing review powers under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which enable him to keep tabs on the offenders' rehabilitation by regularly reviewing community sentences.
Converts and sceptics
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has been to both Liverpool and New York. A sceptic at first, she's now a convert. Crook calls the approach 'completely radical'. 'We've tried whipping, branding, executing, transporting, prison and now we have orange flak jackets. We have tried all these things and they really don't work. We have to see these things in a more holistic way and try and solve the problem that is the best way to protect victims.'
Crook says at the heart of this new approach is 'a change in attitude, a change in purpose which is fundamental to what Fletcher is doing. Our court system is so obsessed with punishment. It takes any responsibility away from offenders and usually the punishment is so disproportionate that it makes the offender feel like they have become the victim. So they have no sympathy, no empathy, and they do not feel sorry. They feel like they have been hard done by.'
John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates Association, is based at Dale Street magistrates court in the centre of Liverpool and four miles from the North Liverpool centre. His response is cooler. 'We accept the principles and, I'd say: "Can we have it in all our courts, please?" We know what the answer is - "No" - and it is down to cost. We aren't going to get it.' He makes the point that it is unfair for the residents of Anfield to have the kind of support denied to people who live in other deprived parts of the city.
Thornhill is sceptical about the government's apparent enthusiasm for 'community justice' given its track record on closing down magistrates' courts. 'At the moment the government is saying that there are no plans to close more. However, I am pretty certain that they will,' he says. 'You can't have members of the community, witnesses, victims and offenders travelling 70 to 80 miles for justice. That's not community justice.'
Sadly, it seems that one of the boldest experiments in judicial thinking is being quietly buried. Tucked away in the recent Green Paper 'Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice', policymakers ruled out future centres 'in light of the costs involved'. 'It continues to be an extremely valuable and successful testbed for the community justice approach as a whole, but we do not believe that the costs involved in building new centres can be justified at present,' the paper states.
Instead ministers promise to use Liverpool to 'testbed' new ideas. They want to roll out a range of community justice measures in 30 pilot areas, including 'community prosecutors' with 'a specific role to engage with communities', 'community impact statements' giving locals 'the chance to feed in their views, and 'citizens' panels' for local people to have a say on community payback schemes. The same package of reforms announced the appointment of a 'victims' champion', Sara Payne.
Frances Crook detects a depressing retreat from what she sees as the more enlightened approach apparently heralded by the Liverpool court. 'The idea of flak jackets and community payback is more about bringing the ethos of the prison out into the community,' she says. 'It's about belittling, demeaning and punishing. It is not about involving communities and solving problems but about gawping at people in the street.'
I visited the Liverpool court twice this year, first as part of the Access to Justice project being run by the Legal Action Group and the second time with a video producer from the Guardian. Observers attest to Judge Fletcher's role in the success of the court; some talk about his 'charisma'. That's probably pushing it - but as Crook reflects, there aren't many judges like him on the bench. His skill is his ability to communicate directly with the steady stream of people that come before him and making a connection with them. As one of the court staff puts it: 'For many of them, it's probably the first time someone has listened.'
On my first trip I watch Judge Fletcher deal with a parade of offenders whose lives are blighted by drink, drugs and poverty. The last two cases of the morning session are 'Mr Evans' and 'Tommy' - Fletcher calls the youths by their first names.
Evans is a well known face to the court. The 47-year old is a chronic alcoholic and a one man crime wave. As the judge later puts it, he has '32 years of criminal experience' behind him and some 160 offences to his name. He appears sober but on past hearings he has been clearly drunk. 'Somewhat late in life he's become a heroin and cocaine user,' says Judge Fletcher. 'All that feeds into his inability to secure regular accommodation and the financial benefits to which he's entitled that contributes to a chaotic lifestyle and doing silly things such as stealing two quid worth of ham. The only way his recidivism will be stopped is if one deals with the major issue, which is the alcohol problem.'
Next up is Tommy, 15 years old and also in breach of his court order. 'I reckon I might have seen him 30 times. He has been coming here since he was about 13,' says Fletcher. He lives what the judge calls 'an almost feral lifestyle' with his mother. His major conviction to date is for assault. He beat her up.
The judge believes that 'a fairly intensive supervision order' could help turn his life around. But he says: 'The problem is at 16 years he's no longer the responsibility of social services and could end up in Men's Direct.' This is a local shelter mainly used by alcoholics, including Evans. Tommy, for all his problems, appears not have a drink or drug problem. The inappropriateness of the two living in the same doss house is shocking.
What can Fletcher do for someone like Tommy? 'I think we've managed to keep the lid on most of the things that he has done,' he says. 'There is little by way of parental support and that gives you a massive problem frankly.' Fletcher believes that he and the agencies can keep him on the rails. 'I don't think he's going to become a really serious criminal. I have seen people his age who are big-time drug dealers.'
Fletcher talks of 'therapeutic jurisprudence' and the idea of judge as 'social worker', notions likely to induce apoplexy with the Daily Mail and probably some government ministers. What does he mean? 'It's based upon the judge being much more proactive and having a much greater say in the way that sentences are carried out as opposed to judges being "the sentencer" and simply applying the law,' he explains.
The judge notes with satisfaction that the phrase 'therapeutic jurisprudence' has been used in the legislation that has established a new Melbourne neighbourhood community justice centre.
Isn't he just a soft touch? Fletcher says not. In fact, he points out that the rate of guilty pleas in Liverpool is much higher than the average.
So does this brand of community justice actually work? A recent report looking into the reconviction rates for offenders dealt with by the North Liverpool and Salford community courts suggested not. They found that the rates were marginally worse than for offenders who went through an ordinary court in Manchester. Of those offenders who went through the North Liverpool court, some one in four (38.7 per cent) were convicted of a further crime within a year.
Fletcher argues that the 'bald' statistics don't do justice to the work that his court is doing. The Ministry of Justice appears to take the point. 'The report looked at re-offending in the first year of the initiative when community justice was in a very early stage of development,' says a MoJ spokesman. 'The initiative will need more time for the effects to bed in to give a true picture of re-offending rates.'
The view from the US is that community justice does work. American criminologist George Kelling developed the 'broken windows' theory, which contended that clamping down on low level crime contributed to reducing larger scale social blight.
'There's a pretty strong consensus that community courts have become an integral part of the program to reduce fear and maintain order and also to reduce serious crime as well,' Kelling reckons.
Greg Berman, director of the Centre for Court Innovation in New York and lead planner for Red Hook, is one of the authors of a new paper about community justice in England and Wales (tellingly called 'Lasting change or passing fad?') He calls the government plan to extend the principles and practices from Liverpool to other magistrates' courts without spending the kind of money that it did on Liverpool 'a complicated challenge, to say the least'. 'Depending upon my mood, I'm either optimistic or pessimistic that it is achievable,' he says.
The main difference between the US and the UK is that community justice centres in the US are genuine ground-up community initiatives. By contrast, in the UK the 'community justice' is a central government policy initiative imposed from above. That, Berman argues, 'undermines buy-in from frontline police officers, magistrates, lawyers and probation officers'. Interestingly, it was a community group from North Liverpool (led by Everton councillor Frank Prendergast) that led to the area being chosen. They sent their own proposals to the Home Office.
There are some 2,500 such courts now in the US and, according to Berman, many cost-benefit surveys have been done to ascertain whether they are worth the significant costs. One report into eight specialist drug courts in California reckoned there were cost savings of $3.50 for every dollar invested. That estimate just relates to savings to the criminal justice system - and not wider costs of avoided property damage, hospital bills, and lost wages.
Judge David Fletcher sums up the role of the North Liverpool court by saying that it is responding to public demand. 'The idea is to satisfy the public demand for a just result but at the same time doing that in a way that is actually responding to what the public really want.' And what's that? 'It's is not for the man to be locked up for the rest of his life but that the man stop offending.'
The names of all offenders have been changed
Jon Robins is a freelance journalist: www.jonrobins.info