OFFENDERS who are ordered to carry out unpaid work in the community as punishment for their crimes are making a positive difference to life in Caithness and turning their own lives around.
Highland Council’s criminal justice service reported that offenders on the community payback scheme have been involved in a string of projects over the past 12 months that have improved the look of towns and villages in the far north.
Community payback orders are punishments imposed on offenders as an alternative to a stint behind bars and involve them carrying out unpaid work within a set period.
As well as making a difference to communities, the staff overseeing the scheme see the benefit offenders derive from their work.
This is reflected in a fall in the number of repeat offences committed by people who have been involved in the programme.
Criminal justice service temporary team manager Maria Cano said that in projects working with groups, including Latheronwheel and Latheron Improvement Group and Wick Riverside Project, offenders were made to feel part of the team.
She said it allowed them to see the benefits of carrying out positive work in the community and feel a part of it.
"Members of the community were working with our squad in the Latheronwheel Playpark project and it was done in a positive way," she said. "The offenders felt they were part of the project.
"They were welcomed by members of the community. They had breaks together and members of the public brought them food during the project.
"That is what we want to see as we want the offenders to repay their debt to the community but also to re-integrate with the community.
"It helps them feel they are part of the community and creates a sense of belonging that might not have been there. This is really important to decrease offending rates.
The community knew they were working with offenders but they were OK with that. It took members of the community to accept the offenders as part of the group for the offenders to feel a sense of pride and belonging."
Under the community payback order scheme, personnel is provided for free to organisations, however, they are expected to buy any equipment required for the projects.
Other schemes that involved offenders included painting restrooms and changing areas at Lybster Bowling Club; painting safety bollards at Wick’s riverside car park; repairing play areas and painting fences and benches at schools.
Mrs Cano said the demand for the services of the community payback teams has remained steady over the past few years. The group is available for projects that can benefit the community and will consider any requests.
She said: "We have had a few challenges ourselves, but it has been a good year and the scheme is going well. The activities the scheme is involved in can depend on the time of year.
"In the summer, offenders are mostly grass cutting for organisations and people who are unable to cut their own lawns.
"We have been working with groups such as the Riverside Volunteers in Wick to clear paths in the town and painting the railings at Wick Riverside car park.
"We have also been helping out at schools getting planters, benches and picnic tables that need to be repainted and refurbished for next summer."
For more information about the community payback scheme and how it could benefit your area or organisation, visit www.highland.gov.uk/info/1396/criminal_justice_social_work