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Watchdog backs pioneering scheme

Teachers are working alongside the police, probation, health, youth and social services in a pioneering scheme which is cutting crime in Northamptonshire.

The six agencies have united to form a nationally-acclaimed "diversion unit" which is now working annually with about 1,100 victims and 1,200 offenders from the age of 10 upwards.

The unit, set up four years ago, arranges compensation for victims and addresses the offending behaviour of young people at about a quarter of the cost of the youth court process.

Its "caution-plus" action programme has the backing of Andrew Foster, the controller of the Audit Commission, who described it as "an absolutely excellent scheme". The commission - the public spending watchdog - estimates that if one in five young offenders accepted similar programmes instead of being processed by the courts, about Pounds 40 million a year could be released.

Its report, Misspent Youth, published last year, stressed the need for resources to be shifted away from processing young offenders towards dealing with their behaviour.

Mr Foster said that the diversion unit was a "really modern, positive, bright spot on the horizon". He added: "It certainly beats some of the futile paper chase which is part of the court process. We would like to see it expanded. "

In Northamptonshire, the police are likely to warn a young person for a first offence, those who reoffend once or twice will be referred to the diversion unit.

The unit's 29 staff are seconded from the six agencies who jointly fund the project which has bases in both the north and south of the county.

Each referral is allocated to a member of staff who visits the offender to discuss the offence and what reparation he or she is able and willing to offer to the victim. Then the police will decide whether to administer a caution or to recommend prosecution.

In 1994-95, the unit dealt with 656 young and 570 adult offenders, at a cost of Pounds 622. The court process costs, on average, around Pounds 2,500 for each young person who is sentenced.

More than three-quarters of the compensation that was negotiated for victims was paid, with a further 17 per cent being paid in instalments.

By comparison, less than half of the compensation ordered by the Inner London Youth Court in 1995-96 was collected. A similar number of victims, perhaps not surprisingly, were satisfied or very satisfied with the resolution of their case.

Four out of 10 victims whose cases were handled by the unit felt that this approach was more appropriate than going to court, compared with 20 per cent who would have preferred the matter to go to court.

Of the 837 individuals which were referred to the unit during 1993-94, slightly more than a third reoffended after approximately 18 months, and the Audit Commission said: "The approach appears to reduce reoffending more effectively than most of the formal disposals given by the courts."

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