Researchers are working with a policing team to support the development of better ways to engage, educate and support at-risk young people

Innovative work by Devon & Cornwall Police, supported by University of Exeter education experts, aims to decrease youth reoffending and prevent children entering the youth criminal justice system.

Researchers are working with a policing team to support the development of better ways to engage, educate and support at-risk young people. Evidence shows young people who are kept out of the criminal justice system are less likely to offend in the future.

A University of Exeter review says the success of new “Intervention Clinics” is largely down to the enthusiasm, commitment and expertise of the officers involved in delivering them and they are a leap forward in terms of dealing with young offenders.

The pilot scheme in Exeter, East and Mid Devon, which has been developed by the police’s local Child Centred Policing and Partnerships teams and Prevention Dept, seeks to deliver a child-centred approach to youth offending by intervening at the earliest point that criminal behaviour is identified and holistically considering wider circumstances. It has been targeted at young people committing, or suspected of committing, offences for the first time.

Children involved in first time offences are being dealt with through the Intervention Clinics, where they receive educational and trauma-informed one-to-one sessions with a specialist Police Youth Intervention Officer. During the sessions, officers listen to the voice of the child and consider reasons behind the young person’s behaviour, referring them onward to specialist services if they or their families could benefit from further support.

Children have been referred to youth and family intervention teams, diversionary activity and sports groups, drug and alcohol support services, mental health and wellbeing services, safeguarding teams, Victim Support, domestic abuse support services, bereavement and loss support services, and autism support.

Police and partner agencies have identified risk factors for children entering the criminal justice system. These include living with family members who offend or use substances, witnessing domestic abuse, experiencing bereavement or loss, being care-involved, mental health challenges, missing episodes, peer group risks, and moving area. The police team are working hard to reduce associated disadvantage by focussing on education and support needs rather than punitive outcomes.

Inspector Lee Groves, who is overseeing the work, said: “By putting in place timely, child-centred support, we can address the causes which may lead a young person to become involved in criminal behaviour and keep them out of the youth criminal justice system.

“So far this work has increased the quality of intervention we have been able to put in place, gives specialist officers time to foster positive encounters with youth offenders, and has improved multiagency collaboration at these ‘critical moments.

“What we want to do is to address the root causes of the behaviour and prevent re-offending. We know acting quickly is critical. Our early results are positive.”

University of Exeter academics have reviewed and qualitatively evaluated the Intervention Clinics and related literature to put together evidence for future development of the scheme. Their research is being used to inform how the clinics will run in the future. The research is funded by the University of Exeter’s Innovation and Research fund and the Office of the Police & Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall via the Serious Violence Prevention fund.

Dr Thomas Ralph and Hayley Gains, from the University’s Graduate School of Education, have worked with those delivering the clinics to evaluate the quality, consistency, and impact of the current approach. They have also worked with young people engaging with the scheme to understand the satisfaction rates and impacts on their lives and behaviours.

Dr Ralph said: “We are pleased to support this very important work which is helping to support young people and divert them from reoffending. Devon & Cornwall Police are working hard to put in place a system to meaningfully engage with young offenders earlier and help them to more easily assess children at risk of offending and refer them for support. The University of Exeter research will also identify any training needed by police officers and how they can work with external support services.”

Dr Ralph, a former teacher, leads research into the causes of youth crime and how timely interventions can be taken to stop a young person before they offend.

The research shows young people who are dealt with through the clinics develop a positive view of the police and are more likely to engage with them.

The location and tone of the clinics is instrumental. When sessions take part in the homes of the young people it allows for a relaxed and calm atmosphere, and this is also developed through the appearance of the officers in plain clothes.

Where the clinics took place in the station the same informal approach was effective but there was a definite impact from the relative formality of the environment.

There was overwhelming support from parents for the clinics and many participants stated that it was their parents who had made them attend. The officers involved in the delivery of the clinics understood the importance of keeping young offenders out of the criminal justice system where appropriate and target the clinics towards moral development.

The significance of the clinics as an educational opportunity was clear to all officers. The chance to develop moral insights was taken during the clinics and the practice of the clinics is informed by a child first, offender second tactic.

The review suggests frontline officers within the wider workforce could review training around the way in which structural conditions affect the lives of young people, and the success of the Intervention clinics could be shared with them to enable them to work more effectively with the specialist officers delivering the clinics.