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Keen to invest in young criminals

Police in Wales have teamed up with business to offer troubled youngsters a better future. Andrew Mourant reports

CRIME prevention evokes images of burglar alarms or beat bobbies advising on window locks. But police in Wales, besides feeling collars, also have an educational mission to stop young people at risk straying into trouble.

For the past three years, the South Wales force has operated a franchise to run personal development courses devised by the Prince's Trust for 16 to 25-year-olds. These are backed also by business and government bodies.

Many signing up have a criminal record. Others are on the brink. Mostly they are people who other training providers, businesses with funding dependent on outcomes, will not take on.

The scheme relies principally on money from Education and Learning Wales, although the contract for next year has yet to be signed. ELWa will only fund 16 to 17-year-olds, so if South Wales police wants to draw in older people, it must seek backing elsewhere.

The force has seconded four officers full time and funded a mix of other support for the project. The effects may be hard to quantify but chief constable Sir Anthony Burden reckons it is good business and a sound investment.

Inspector Stephen Flynn has administered the scheme for the past three years. "My job is to sell the project and generate income from other sources," he said.

"It started from small beginnings but there are now seven teams across South Wales backed with a variety of funding methods."

The cost in time and money of dealing with young criminals is notoriously high. There is, Inspector Flynn feels, economic sense in a project which in one year dealt with 105 young offenders of whom, two years later, only a third had re-offended. Yet, he says, fellow officers can be the hardest to convince.

Inspector Jon Lott, soon to succeed Inspector Flynn, came to realise the complexity of the problems facing young people when he worked as a custody officer.

"I used to talk to the kids in the small hours, people with nothing to get up for, and look at the bigger picture," he said.

At the enterprise centre in Ely, a run-down council estate in west Cardiff, team leader Sara Towel deals with tough customers. The centre offers free accommodation.

There are, inevitably, failures and dropouts. Some arrive from appalling backgrounds. But the successes which make it worthwhile include a girl who was barely literate on joining but progressed to a career in youth work.

Ms Towel previously worked for the Inland Revenue. "I became involved on secondment. I thought it would be good for career development," she said.

"But when I returned after four months I found things a bit dull."

So she came back full-time, funded by South Wales police. Her leadership skills are constantly stretched and she is conscious of the need always to appear "bouncy" - game for anything from caving to abseiling.

Young people joining the 12-week project have to volunteer, although the training allowance they receive for doing so is an incentive.

"We liaise with youth offending teams, Career Wales and police officers in local stations," she said.

Inspector Flynn would like more referrals from colleagues. "There is ignorance within the police about what we are doing," he said. "We need to reach the kid you would want to clip around the head, who is about to go off the rails. I'd say to fellow officers 'give us their names and addresses and we'll do the rest'."

Not all the recruits are drifting into crime. Katie, 17, arrived after moving to Cardiff with her family from Cornwall and suffering from depression.

"I tried college but it wasn't for me," she said. "I was told about this course by my doctor and I've been coming for nine weeks. My general life skills have improved and my confidence has soared."

Abseiling, she finds, is infinitely preferable to Prozac. Basic skills as well as life skills are worked on. There are plans to seek funding for a preliminary week in which basic skills and general motivation will be tested. The course also includes practical community projects: recently a team helped refurbish the local Salvation Army hostel.

Matthew, also 17, was constantly in trouble at school and eventually wound up in court. He has learned computer skills and team work, and hopes to do carpentry at Barry College. While benefiting from the course it has, he says, had its problems.

"There's been a lot of messing around and people not listening," he said.

"Sometimes you get the team wrong, like putting too many car thieves together."

United Utilities is among the big organisations offering support - others include Legal and General, the DVLA, the Benefits Agency and Kwik-Fit.

"They plan to set up mock interviews and offer work experience placements," said Ms Towel.

Steve Johnson, United Utilities' operations director, said: "We aim to give them the chance to do something with their lives."

Confidence and verbal skills are tested when, after 12 weeks, everyone gives a talk about how it has been for them. Afterwards comes the critical time when people could sink or swim, something now being addressed by the Prince's Trust.

"Discussions with ELWa are under way and we are bidding to fund a support network for a further 12 weeks," said Trust centre manager Sophie Cunnington.

"We know it can be very daunting for people suddenly to find themselves on their own."

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