'Putting people behind bars is the last resort' - how the force's Youth Offending Teams are looking at the bigger picture when it comes to keeping children away from crime
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“The last thing I want to see is a child going to prison.”
These are the words of Lisa Smallwood, one of Staffordshire Police’s Youth Offending Police Officers based in Stoke-on-Trent. They are tasked with clamping down on the number of youngsters re-entering the Criminal Justice System by tackling issues before they develop into offences.
“We try and look at ways to reduce re-offending and make sure the right people and agencies are involved with the families we work with,” she said of her unit’s role. “It’s very pro-active and that is key to reducing crime and deterring young people from the Criminal Justice System.”
Lisa has worked with the Youth Offending Team for five years, previously working in Response for nearly 14 years. She has a vast experience of police work, and her current role allows her to join that expertise with that of partner agencies and help youngsters - who are referred to the team once they have been committed for an offence.
“Response policing is very reactive and you are dealing with incidents as they are happening and in quick succession,” she adds. “What I love about the team is I have time to work with other agencies and look at the root causes of the problem. We try and look at ways to reduce re-offending.”
There are complex reasons why a child may have offended in the first place. Lisa and her colleagues have to try and work them out. They also need to make sure that the child doesn’t become lost in the Criminal Justice System.
“In 2016, Staffordshire Police piloted a triage process that became best practice and is now adopted in other force areas too,” she added. “Where the offence is suitable and where the child has admitted to their actions we will try and divert them away from court.
“Every child in that process receives an assessment by a case worker and also an assessment by our health team. That will identify any concerns about the child’s physical and mental health, attitudes towards the offence and risk of harm or re-offending.”
And this is where the multiple partner agencies step in.
“Within the Staffordshire Police force area we have Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Youth Offending Services - and that is made up of many partners. Overall, Youth Offending Services are a statutory body based within the local authority. These are guided by the Youth Justice Board. Those teams are made up of Youth Offending Services staff, police officers like Lisa and members of Staffordshire Police’s Youth Violence team, victim workers, probation officers, social workers, health staff, substance misuse workers, education and training staff and volunteers who make up offender panels and assist in reparation and activities. We also have a great working relationship with schools.
“The police do not solely have a say on the outcome as we believe tackling youth crime is very much the job of multiple agencies and relies on good partnership working. We all come together and between the police, victim workers who make sure the victim’s voice is heard, health workers and us in the Youth Offending Team we decide on the most suitable outcome. That can be anything from a Community Resolution Order to a Youth Conditional Caution.
“The work does not end there though. If there are any gaps that need addressing in that child’s life, be it education, physical or emotional support, careers advice, positive activities or training, they will all be made available to the child and family.
“This is because it is proven that desistance [how people with a previous pattern of offending come to abstain from crime] is a major factor in preventing re-offending, by showing the child a different path.
“Where possible, we try and look at Restorative Justice opportunities whereby the child can repair the wrong in a number of ways. It is part of the process for the child to realise what they did wrong, and then focus on the consequences and understanding them.”
The differing approach has been shown to be successful.
“We have one young person who was committing a lot of serious crime and was subject to a court order. By working very closely with the family and social care we identified the biggest risks around that young person that included the geography of their offending and peers. After a carefully planned move that child is now thriving, has not re-offended, is safe and is happy.”
The thinking is simple. Jailing youngsters and potentially consigning them to a life of re-offending is to be avoided wherever possible.
“The whole purpose of the Staffordshire Police Youth Offending Services triage process is the early identification of children who are at risk of offending or have started to offend,” Lisa added. “By early assessment and intervention, we can put a multi-agency package around them and the family in the hope we can divert that child away from the Criminal Justice System and prevent any further offending.
“We don’t want young people to think the police are the bad guys, we genuinely want them to know we will do what we can to help them to be the best they can be.
“It is essential to have this partnership working within the police,” Lisa added. “Putting people behind bars is the last resort. If we can try and correct a child’s behaviour before it gets to that point, that is the aim. The last thing I want to see is a child going to prison and by working together we can try and reduce the numbers that do.”