Alternatives to custody

One of my first jobs was to create a care programme for juvenile offenders – part of a new approach to non-custodial sentences. I was ridiculously young and inexperienced to be heading up this project, but I had got the job, I believe, because of my commitment to a community-based approach. By this, I meant creating a small-scale, rural community that the young people would join on a regular basis (one weekend a month over two years, was the most common arrangement).

The young people were offered the experience of living in a small-scale version of society where cause and effect was obvious, where building strong and trusting relationships mattered and where the working of the whole genuinely depended on each person playing their specific and important part.

It was extraordinary to watch what happened – and quite a challenge to convince the sceptical social workers that their charges were demonstrating such completely different behaviour and characteristics. Youngsters who were staying with us because they had been convicted of theft or arson or assault were now: collecting chickens eggs and carrying them carefully to the kitchen so they wouldn’t break; telling each other bed-time stories because the youngest were afraid of the dark in the country setting away from street lighting; getting up on time to be ready for work; being too busy to have time to watch TV or just sitting and talking over meals to each other and to adults who were genuinely interested in what they had to say.