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Criminal act to shut offenders scheme

Lee Robinson grew up as a "street kid" with an alcoholic mother and no father, "running the streets, stealing what I needed to survive. My education was practically non-existent. By the age of 10 I was like a train on a track heading nowhere."

He ended up in a young offenders' institution; returned to crime when he got out and was then sent to an adult prison where he saw the future: "I would become one of the old criminals who could not survive on the outside any longer. I didn't want that but nothing about prison enabled me to cope when I was outside."

Lee keeps repeating how lucky he was that, aged 19, he was offered a place at C-Far, the Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation, an organisation started by ex-marine Lt Colonel Trevor Philpott OBE. It offered young offenders, willing to give their own time, a chance of constructive rehabilitation - rigorous physical activities, education and skills training, psychological support and inter-personal skills.

They would take up the fully-funded places after they had completed their prison sentences. For the first time, Lee found "people who believed in me and helped me make positive change."

He went on to become an instructor at an outdoor activity centre, and has just been taken on by the Army. "It's not too much to say C-Far saved my life," he concludes.

Others like him are not quite so lucky. C-Far, which had a consistent waiting list of 70 applicants, was praised by police and probation services for its positive achievements among the notoriously hard-to-reach 18 to 25-year-olds.

Virtually all (99 per cent) of those who completed their training at the centre improved their basic educational skills up to three levels. But the centre has been forced to close because there was no money for it to continue running.

In the six years since C-Far opened, Philpott and his team had raised most of their own funding, although a contribution came from government.

However, last year a statutory funding re-organisation led to a cashflow problem. Philpott asked the Government for a bridging loan of pound;150,000 until their anticipated pound;200,000 was in place, but this was refused.

It is difficult to understand why. C-Far was a startlingly successful model. Re-offending rates among participants were 35 per cent lower than what the prison service achieved with the same age group. An evaluation done at the University of Central England two years ago, estimated that this lower offending rate had saved the treasury some pound;12 million. To say nothing of the "cost" saved to potential victims.

It seems particularly bizarre given that Home Secretary Charles Clarke has just announced another new government initiative - a five-year strategy for Protecting the Public and Reducing Re-Offending. With its emphasis on personal support, housing, the prospect of employment and maintaining family ties as part of a package, we can assume it will cost a good chunk of the taxpayer's money to set up. The central aims of building up self-esteem and skills and providing good after-care, appear remarkably similar to those of Philpott. Indeed it was enthusiasm at the proposals for criminal justice reforms with rehabilitation at the heart, that so impressed Philpott in the 1997 New Labour manifesto.

Retired from the marines at 56, Philpott decided to use the skills he had gained working with adolescent naval trainees to work with the young whose re-offending rate from prison remains, as it has been for years, at some 75 per cent. His regime focused on building physical and psychological strength. It instilled a sense of worth, direction and hope - treating trainees with respect and expecting them to be respectful in turn.

No less important was the dedicated after-care that C-Far provided with appropriate housing, an education or work opportunity and a mentor for nine months when trainees left - a package remarkably similar to that which the Government proposes in its new scheme.

So why not take C-Far's successful, dynamic model and replicate it around the country, using Philpott as chief adviser? There appears to be no satisfactory answer from a government that has made much of its wish to work in partnership with the voluntary sector.

Meanwhile Philpott and dedicated colleagues have established their new Life-Change organisation and intend something similar to C-Far to rise from the ashes.

Even so, the question is begged, how criminally irresponsible was the Government in letting a scheme that succeeded where they have failed in reducing re-offending, go under?

Angela Neustatter is the author of Locked In - Locked Out. The Experience of Young Offenders In Prison and Out Of Society (Calouste Gulbenkian) and editor of YoungMinds magazine

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