Should first-time offenders find themselves with a criminal record? Or would everyone benefit from a more targeted alternative? Stuart Agnew assesses a ground-breaking project.
Challenge 4 Change was set up by the Suffolk Youth Offending Service in an attempt to tackle low level youth offending behaviour. It provides Suffolk Constabulary with an alternative to prosecution or a Youth Caution when young people are arrested for the first time for relatively minor offences.
A pilot project began in April 2012 in partnership with Suffolk Constabulary and funded by the Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner. University Campus Suffolk (UCS) was commissioned to provide an evaluation of the programme on behalf of the Suffolk Youth Offending Service (SYOS).
The research team conducted face-to-face interviews with 10 young people and their parents or carers when they joined the programme and again when they completed it.
Additional interviews were conducted with police officers, Youth Offending Service practitioners and managers July and October 2013.
The Challenge 4 Change (C4C) programme is individually designed for each young person who takes part. This enables participants to consider the consequences of their actions without receiving a criminal record.
Through active participation with C4C, young people keep open options that would be closed to them if they had a criminal record.
There are two levels of intervention:
At ‘level one,’ emphasis is placed on helping participants to understand the consequences of their actions. They write a letter explaining what they did and reflecting on how the victim might have been affected. They also complete a ‘drug box’ exercise in which young people explore risks and consequences associated with recreational use of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy.
At ‘level two’ there is an additional focus on restorative justice, and a police Victim Care Officer is involved. The offender writes a letter of explanation and apology to the victim, and where appropriate mentoring, parenting support and work on risk-taking are also offered.
The research highlighted the perceptions and experiences of those involved with C4C and identified benefits to providing support to young people.
Ten young people were interviewed (eight male and two female.) Four had admitted to violent behaviour, three to drug-related offences, two to theft and one to arson. All of them felt the programme could have an effect on their future behaviour:
‘It gives me a second chance; I won’t get a criminal record for doing something stupid…’
The young people could link the aims of the programme with the activities they were asked to complete. For example, they all said they spent time exploring the consequences of their actions. Some had written letters of apology or essays about negative peer group relations and the hazards associated with drug use.
One young person in particular demonstrated a high level of self-reflection when he considered the impact of writing a letter of apology to the victim of his offence:
‘it really affected me, I hadn’t thought about things that way before.’
All parents or carers who were interviewed seemed to value the overall aims of the C4C programme:
‘It gives them information on consequences of their actions.’
‘It shows consequences and also provides a safety net for those first time offenders who may otherwise have a criminal record.’
All these adults felt the main benefit of the programme was that their child or charge would not get a criminal record. This was clearly the main reason why they encouraged the young person to participate.Understanding the consequences and wider issues surrounding victims of crime was a secondary concern.
The Police Officers interviewed were very clear that they supported the programme’s aim of not criminalising young people:
‘We have all been a juvenile and we have all done stupid things.’
The officers suggested C4C should be used for minor offences and predominately for first time offenders who accept responsibility for their actions and demonstrate remorse.
Police Officers were very proud of the transition the police service has made in terms of not criminalising young people unnecessarily. For example one Officer said:
‘I think it reflects well on the police service that we are prepared to not criminalise people for trivial matters.’
It was evident that officers saw C4C as more than just an easy option:
‘There appears to be some work going into sorting out the issue really, why has he stolen it? The ramifications of it, whereas in the Community Resolution, it’s done and dusted in ten minutes.’
Youth Offending Service staff developed bespoke interventions for young people on the basis of a needs assessment. This level of individualisation was arguably one of the strengths of the programme as staff, young people and their families were able to tackle underlying factors that influenced their problematic behaviour.
As the intervention is specific to each young person, all parties believe there is more active engagement with the programme because the young people can see its relevance to their lives.
A further strength of C4C is the relationship built between staff and young people. One staff member said:
‘We surprise them. They expect us to be horrible, and we are not! They don’t realise that this is a supportive programme not just a punishment.’
This evaluation showed all stakeholders valued C4C as a positive and robust alternative for Suffolk Constabulary which reduced the numbers of first-time entrants to the criminal justice system.
In addition, the programme supported young people by providing space for critical reflection, empowering them to consider their actions and the potential consequences.
Almost all the participants wanted to see C4C continue, and the Suffolk Youth Offending Service has now rolled the programme out across the whole county. Will it reduce youth offending? It is too early to say.
Stuart Agnew and Dr Emma Bond are both Senior Lecturers in the School of Applied Social Sciences at University Campus Suffolk.