Plans hatched for community justice

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Communities besieged by 'yob culture' could be given a say in how offenders atone for crimes in the wake of a pioneering Norfolk study.Parish councils could also be asked to play a greater role in supporting the victims of crime after UEA experts produced a detailed ward-by-ward breakdown of what offences are committed in one Norfolk district - and by whom.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Communities besieged by 'yob culture' could be given a say in how offenders atone for crimes in the wake of a pioneering Norfolk study.

Parish councils could also be asked to play a greater role in supporting the victims of crime after UEA experts produced a detailed ward-by-ward breakdown of what offences are committed in one Norfolk district - and by whom.

Broadland District council, which commissioned the research, plans to use the findings of the £100,000 project to step up its own efforts to reduce crime and foster a sense of “community justice”.

Last night Norfolk Police backed the scheme and said it offered a blueprint for the rest of the county to follow. The move also came as Norfolk's new chief constable Ian McPherson ranked improving neighbourhood policing as his top priority.

But Simon Woodbridge, council leader, who came up with the idea, said the aim was to tap into local knowledge to keep offenders nearing the end of their sentence on the straight and narrow and identify if they need support in areas such as training, housing or other areas such as health services, when they leave jail.

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Mr Woodbridge, who thought of the initiative while training to become a member of the Norfolk Probation Board, said it brought home to him that local government needed to work more closely with the criminal justice system to foster a proper joined up approach.

Councillors wanted to know who was committing crime, where offences took place, and the social or personal factors which led to it, and the research would help the district, which is already a low crime area drive down offending rates even further.

Such is the detail contained in the report that crime trends have been pinpointed ward by ward allowing councillors to see which offences predominate in a given area. It found that motoring offences made up more than half of all crimes and domestic violence is relatively high costing the community around £27m a year.

“Other areas would be mad not to turn around and see what we are doing, it's a project which could be of national significance,” Mr Woodbridge said. “The findings are critical to us. They will be used as the foundation of a raft of measures designed to prevent crime before offending behaviour begins and a range of measures to ensure that people who have offended do not re-offend.”

But the idea was not to replace punishments handed out in the courts, but to bolt-on an element of community pay back.

The council is setting aside a further £10,000 to consult with parishes for their views on the initiative.

“This is about seeing where we can best put our money, rather than just responding to home office initiatives,” he added. “It may be that a parish council could ask a youngster to tidy up an overgrown hedge or replace a broken paving slab. It also helps remove the fear of crime because the community would see that it's young Johnny fixing the paving slab and not a hooded young criminal.”

A six strong team of academics, from UEA's School of Allied Health Professionals, carried out the research sifting through crimes statistics, as well as interviewing victims and offenders and talking to focus groups.

Dr Fiona Poland, who led the study, said that earlier and more effective responses to bullying and disengagement from education were crucial to the prevention of offending. Greater focus should also be placed on mentoring schemes, outreach work and even areas such as bereavement support.

“We have not done anything quite like this before,” she said. “Communities and victims were actively interested in how offenders can make constructive reparation for their law-breaking. The energy and commitment locally to reduce the level of offending, with the frequently long-term impact that it can have on victims, was inspiring and underlines the value of people communicating and working together across communities and formal agencies.”

Chief Insp Gavin Tempest, Norfolk Police's community safety chief officer, said the research would prove “highly valuable” in the fight against crime.

“I can see how some of the findings could be used in other parts of the county or region,” he said. “It's not just about Broadland.”