Mentors show errant youth a different path

Click to follow
LAST WEEK, 14-year-old Martin had an important appointment with "high-ups" from the Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit. The unit is based in Downing Street but the officials wanted to see Martin on his home territory. A meeting was set up in less-than-salubrious King's Cross.

As Martin approached his destination he was approached by a stranger. "He offered me crack. I'm black so he reckons I'm into drugs. He's lucky I was due at the meeting 'cos I felt like breaking his f---ing legs."

Martin is in an experiment that is generating excitement in the Home Office. He has been told by a magistrate that, if he wants to keep his freedom, he must agree to have a "mentor" - a young man, not much older than him, who will be his "friend" and show him there is more to life than petty crime.

It is a deceptively simple idea, relatively cheap, and in the US, where it originated, it is proving highly effective. Which is why Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is keen to see it take off in the UK. Tomorrow, Mr Straw will preach the merits of mentoring at a Youth Justice Board conference. He will pledge pounds 13m for a range of measures, including mentoring. On Tuesday, a study by the University of Luton will say that early results from a pioneering London scheme show how mentoring can significantly reduce juvenile crime.

Tony Blair was an early convert after seeing the scheme in the US. In his first speech as prime minister he explained the philosophy behind it: "Many problems of later life stem from problems in the family, poor parenting and lack of support. We know that if a child is aggressive and out of control, it is better to help them when they are six than when they have become a criminal at 16." The Home Secretary is equally enthused. Mentoring goes to the heart of his belief that individuals have a responsibility to help reduce crime.

The young men and women who do the mentoring are not trained social workers; they are volunteers working most days of the week for up to a year in return for nothing but living expenses. They are recruited and trained by the charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV). The first project was introduced in east London in 1996.

Steve Massey, at 28, is one of the oldest mentors. "It's tough. I'm working with heroin addicts and two young sex offenders," he says. "The problem with these kids is that they never leave their neighbourhood. They have no idea of life in the wider world. That's where I come in - to try to show them that there is something else.

"This lad I work with was 13 when he was done for sexually assaulting two women. His parents are evangelical Christians and won't allow him out in the evening. He goes to an all-boys school and he's just sexually screwed up. I take him to basketball training and ice-rinks and try to talk to him normally."

Another of Steve's "friends" is a 14-year-old heroin addict who pays for his habit by dealing drugs to prostitutes. "His family can't speak English. He can't read or write. I don't know if I can help, but it's worth the try."

Mentoring is not a panacea, but the most recent study from the US compared 500 mentored children with a control group and found they were 46 per cent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 per cent less likely to develop an alcohol problem and 52 per cent less likely to play truant.

It's too early to know whether it will work as well in Britain but the study by the University of Luton is optimistic: "Mentors have made a significant difference to the lives of many of the young people with whom they have worked."

Significantly, the courts have shown an interest. One of the first teenagers to be mentored was a young man (he cannot be named) now serving 12 years for the brutal gang rape of a foreign tourist three years ago. In his case the mentoring came too late. With Martin it has kicked in early. So far his "record" is limited to a spot of burglary and disruptive behaviour at school.

Since being with his mentor he seems to be calming down. And, as he told the Social Exclusion Unit, he didn't break the legs of the drug dealer.

n The notorious women's wing at Risley Prison in Cheshire, criticised for overcrowding and abuse by government inspectors, is to close within the next few weeks. Inmates will be transferred to Styal Prison. Numbers of female prisoners have doubled over the last five years to 3,200, the highest total for 100 years, partly due to an increase in drug-related crime.