Diversion tactic cuts youth crime

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The Independent Online
It was nothing a pounds 3.50 window lock couldn't fix. Just a question of who fixed it.

The same boy who slipped through the tiny pantry window to burgle the property returned to the house weeks later - this time to secure the catch.

The victim had wanted to know how she had been burgled and the offender was able to show her. The reconciliation was arranged by the Northamptonshire Diversion Unit which acted as an intermediary between the two parties and arrived at the mutually accepted resolution to the crime.

"It was a very simple thing," said Sandy Pragnell, the unit manager. "It only cost the offender pounds 3.50 and both parties got something out of it. Something positive." This is an everyday tale at the unit which applies a "partnership approach" in place of the legal system.

The Audit Commission has highlighted the unit as an example of a "caution plus" programme - one which steers young offenders away from crime and compensates victims. Of the 40 per cent who returned a survey about the unit, 90-95 per cent of offenders and 89 per cent of victims said they were satisfied with the outcome of its work.

First-time offenders in Northamptonshire are given a warning and those who reoffend are referred to the diversion unit - approximately 1,200 each year - of which the majority are men under 25. Research by Nene College, in Northampton, has shown that those who go to the unit are less likely to commit a third crime than those who went through the courts.

The unit's strength is its multi-agency make-up. The 29 staff are seconded from the police, probation, health, education, social services and youth service, enabling them to pool expertise.

As an alternative to court, it may sound like a soft option. But Miss Pragnell insisted the opposite was true. "The major reason some opt for the courts is that working with us is too hard," she said. "We confront them. We say: `You know you've committed this offence. What are you going to do about it?'"