Peer court leads the way for youth justice

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Reporter ELISE BREWERTON sits in on an innovative type of court hearing for first-time young offenders aged 10 to 17 which is getting great results in preventing re-offending – and is helping victims too.

Of those, many will have received cautions which could stay on their records for up to three years.

But thanks to an innovative scheme many are avoiding a criminal record and being steered away from further crime and anti-social behaviour through a peer court made up of other young people.

This Saturday marks a year of the Hampshire Community Court, which has been running as a pilot in Fareham and Gosport.

More than 70 cases have been heard by panel of young people aged 14 to 25, who decide outcomes suitable for young, first-time offenders who have commited low-level crimes.

In the first year just five per cent of the respondents – the perpetrators – have gone on to re-offend. The national figure is 33 per cent.

Last night, at Fareham police station, a panel of young people aged between 15 and 21 heard two cases – an assault by an 11-year-old boy and a theft by a 15-year-old boy.

In order for cases to go before the peer court, both sides have to agree that they want to take part in a restorative process.

It is formal in the sense of where it is held, the panel wear uniforms and both the victim and the respondent have advocates – also young people – speaking on their behalf.

But, unlike a magistrates’ court, both sides can discuss the case and ask questions.

The victim in the assault case was a 14-year-old boy who was punched twice by the younger boy.

The peer panel ask careful, considered questions designed to make both the victim and the respondent think hard about the situation and how to resolve it.

The older boy wants to know why he was singled out, why he was abused.

Both parents are able to explain how the crime has affected them too.

The panel deliberate for 15 minutes over how justice can be served and they settle on a written apology.

Afterwards both the victim and his mother are happy with the outcome.

Liam Mills, 19, led the panel. He says: ‘It’s exciting to know we’re able to make a difference to our peers’ lives’.

The results so far have proved the Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Hayes was right to set aside £150,000 of taxpayers’ money for the project.

He says: ‘What it’s doing is showing young people the error of their ways, encouraging young people not to reoffend.

‘And also it’s giving an understanding for the victim as to why the crime was committed.

‘What we’re finding is both the victim and the perpetrator are very happy with this scheme’.

COMMENT: PC MARK WALSH

THE idea for the community court came from PC Mark Walsh.

He was inspired by the American system, which has been running for more than 20 years in almost every state.

PC Walsh won a fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to spend six weeks in the USA researching how peer courts work.

When Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Hayes was elected in 2013, PC Walsh went to him for funding and was successful.

It’s something Hampshire Constabulary would not have had the budget for, but it has more than likely saved it a lot of money dealing with young people who are diverted away from a life of crime by coming face-to-face with victims.

PC Walsh says: ‘From an operational perspective I’m very proud of what the volunteers have achieved.

‘It’s a success for them in terms of the commitment they’ve given to their community.

‘We’ve only got a five per cent re-offending rate.

‘The national re-offending rate is 33 per cent. In those terms it can be deemed a success as well.’

He adds: ‘It’s a restorative approach. It doesn’t replace anything that the criminal justice system currently does.

‘It actually enhances the police outcomes.‘

COMMENT: DAISY BROWN

DAISY Brown has acted as an advocate for both perpetrators and victims in more than 40 of the 70 cases held so far.

The 18-year-old, from Fareham, is about to head off to university and eventually wants to be a solicitor.

She says: ‘Most of the kids we get in here are not bad kids, they have just made a mistake.

‘That’s why the programme is so effective.

‘We don’t want them to be branded as trouble-makers because of one error of judgment.

‘All the victims we have met have been satisfied.

‘It’s a lot more personal than a real courtroom. They can ask questions. You don’t get that opportunity in a proper court.

‘It’s good that they get to put their point of view across.’

All the young people involved in the community court are volunteers.

Daisy adds: ‘I really enjoy it. ‘It’s good for my confidence. A year ago I couldn’t stand up in a room full of people and do this.

‘It’s a great experience because you meet lots of different people.’