Last week Justice Secretary David Gauke used his parting speech to call for an end to prison sentences of less than six months. His comments came after months of discussion about ‘smarter’ sentencing and referenced new research that shows that around two thirds of offenders on jail terms of less than 12 months go on to reoffend, compared with a third of those given a community order or a suspended sentence.
The speech coincided with a conference on prevention in Plymouth which was held jointly by my office and the Howard League for Penal Reform, which was part of a prestigious award the charity gave to Devon and Cornwall’s Pathfinder scheme.
The concept of Pathfinder, which was set up after my office secured funding for it and is one of only two such schemes in the country, is simple – there are certain offenders who can achieve their potential if we can connect them to the services they need and give them the right support at the point of their first offence. In practice this means offering a constructive contract to people who might otherwise be given a caution and a criminal record. If they fail to complete the course of supervision and voluntary work the caution still stands.
Three quarters of people offered a Pathfinder contract as an alternative to a caution accept it and will be put in touch with one of 15 keyworkers who work across the force area. In June alone these workers, who are really impressive individuals, held 350 hours of face to face intervention sessions and referred participants on to 29 organisations for voluntary activities.
Pathfinder participants have done everything from organising beach cleans to working with disabled children and knitting hats for homeless people. Doing good work like this gives them back a sense of self-worth, as well as doing good for their community.
But the real value of the scheme for wider society comes in the reoffending rate, of those on the programme, just 2.7% of people committed another crime during it. More detailed analysis, comparing outcomes for those who went on the programme and those who did not, is being carried out by Cambridge University.
That’s not to say it’s for everyone though, it’s only suitable for those who have shown remorse and genuinely want an opportunity to turn their lives around and the victim has been included in the conversation about what’s happening.
For someone who might have got into the wrong crowd or made a few mistakes though it represents a great chance to turn over a new leaf by addressing some of the underlying reasons for offending. Pathfinder workers have uncovered some complex reasons for offending and helped participants to address these by making them ‘experts in their own change’.
The scheme has helped people deal with problems like debt, alcoholism, physical health, gambling and housing.
People at the conference were moved by the personal accounts of those who were progressing well with the help of the scheme. One had come off drugs and was training to become a football coach with the help of the Exeter City in the Community charity. A woman described how she had committed a crime while “isolated from my loved ones, on a downward spiral of abusive relationships and homelessness”.
“I did not expect the police to understand nor did I expect such kindness, support and solace. Things are better and I’m rebuilding my life,” she said.
People often don’t appreciate the role of a Police and Crime Commissioner in commissioning services to reduce crime, but it’s an area I am very proud of. A life of crime costs us all dearly. If we can help people avoid going down the wrong track there will be fewer victims, fewer offenders and ultimately safer communities and our police will be able to spend more time on that basic Peelian principle of preventing crime.
Pathfinder is one of a number of crime prevention activities we’re supporting in the face of a growing public support for this approach (it’s emerging as one of people’s top priorities in our police and crime survey this year).
We’re delivering Rural Crime Surgeries in partnership with the police, secured funding for the Turning Corners programme to help young people in South Devon to stay away from drugs and violence and currently recruiting for a coordinator to help Community Watch schemes in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
If you’d like to let me know about your police and crime priorities get in touch via the Contact Us page.
If you need to get in touch with the police in a non emergency during what promises to be an exceptionally busy summer then we’re asking people to ‘Click before you call’ and fill out the online form at devon-cornwall.police.uk or use WebChat if you can instead of dialling 101. It means police get all the information they need in a quick and efficient manner. Of course the 101 phone service remains for those who can’t go online.