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Sheffield steels up to curb young offenders

David Blunkett's constituency is leading the fight against juvenile crime. Diane Spencer reports.

SHEFFIELD has come in from the political cold. Not only is its local MP David Blunkett in charge of education, but it has won a Home Office approval for nine pilot schemes to tackle youth crime under the Crime and Disorder Bill due to become law next month.

"It's nice being on-side instead of being permanently off-side," said Malcolm Potter, the youth justice manager.

What Sheffield does today, the rest of the country might have to do by 2001 when the Act is fully implemented. Fitting in with the Government's commitment to be "tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime", it emphasises intervention, reparation, partnership with other services, stricter controls on children and sanctions for parents.

Chief superintendent Douglas Brand said the city had won approval for its schemes because many initiatives were already in place. It hopes for a share of the Pounds 3 million the Home Office has earmarked for all the pilots and maybe some extra from the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Sheffield introduced a fast-tracking scheme 18 months ago to reduce the time taken to sentence persistent juvenile offenders. It is already only nine days short of the Government's target of 71 days - half the national rate.

The city pioneered a partnership with police, probation, social services and education to form a youth justice team which is a prototype for the youth offender teams soon to become law.

A bail support scheme means that social workers contact youngsters as soon as they leave court and visit their families, or place them with carers and find out why they offended, help them get back to school or find them work.

Martin Manby, director of the youth justice project, said it was successful because 70 per cent had not reoffended, and 90 per cent turned up in court on time, noticeably better since the scheme started.

A blueprint for a final warning scheme to replace the ineffective cautioning system is being tried out. This will give police the power to issue reprimands following relatively minor incidents. After that comes the final warning and a referral to the youth offending teams for assessment.

One sanction is reparation to the victim: a voluntary group, the Sheffield VictimOffender Mediation Project - set up in 1996 - will help this pilot scheme in which the offender can make amends to the victim or the community by saying sorry, writing a letter or scrubbing a graffiti-scrawled wall.

A befriending project run by the Society of Voluntary Associates and Caring Around Sheffield Together will pilot a mentoring scheme using the skills of 60 volunteers who already help youngsters in a variety of ways. These include sporting activities, shopping, acting as surrogate brothers or sisters, or building bridges back to school.

The pilots fit in well with Sheffield's educational initiatives to raise levels of achievement - the education action zone and literacy summer schools.

"The pilots are a learning process for us and it will be good fun," said Mr Manby.

Chief superintendent Brand, who was involved in the Safer Cities Partnership with the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said: "We've been ahead of the game in a voluntary way; but it might not be so easy for colleagues who have to start from scratch."

They said the youth offender teams were about different professions making equally valid contributions.

"You need to have the commitment of the key people and a lot of belief in someone else's department," said the chief superintendent.

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