“it feels like we were drawing in black and white, but now we’ve got colouring pencils.”

Now in technicolour: changing justice in Birmingham

Posted on 08 Jun in

Jo Thomas, our head of innovative practice, recently spent a morning with the Birmingham burglary intervention team to discuss its latest innovative programme and meet one of its participants. The intensive rehabilitation programme is a pilot scheme targeting prolific, non-violent, adult burglary dwelling offenders who are trapped in a cycle of additions, crime and prison. It provides a definite choice with a realistic opportunity to change, achieved via a strong support and mentoring network from the police, probation and a number of other partner agencies over a three year period supervised in the community.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning in early May when I was collected from Birmingham New Street by three members of the burglary intervention team. They were in their usual good spirits as we headed away from the city centre – PC John Haynes driving, with DS Sandy Thompson and Humaira, the team’s psychology student, in the back. We were on our way to meet Steve, the newest recruit to the burglary intervention programme, who had been working with the team since December 2017. Steve, in his own words, is “a spiritual person. A performance artist with a history of addiction and offending who is now doing something positive with his life.” And this positivity came through immediately as he welcomed us into his home, offering coffee or water and ensuring we were all comfortable. The first thing that struck me was how at ease he appeared inviting police officers into his personal space, as it had once before when I had visited another of the programme’s participants. But Steve assured me it hadn’t always been that way. “I used to view the police as ‘us and them’, ‘cops and robbers’, ‘they’re a bit racist and will lock you up” he explained, but this programme has meant “my perception of the police has changed massively. I would never have expected it. There is a humanity within them – they want to see you do well.” And for Steve, that has led to some soul searching of his own, “challenging my own prejudices about what the police stand for and so challenging my own behaviour… when it’s different from your expectations you think ‘well, if they’re trying to help me, I need to try to help myself.’”

This change in mind-set is not a one-way street. DS Thompson, the operational lead for the team within the police and responsible for maintaining the partnerships that make the programme possible, explains that, “it has blown me away. I thought people committed offences for a certain reason, but talking to people on this programme has shown I was completely wrong.” For him, this is revolutionising how he thinks about crime prevention, “it has opened the door to understanding why something is happening. You can’t fix the problem without the people who have caused the problem. Sometimes it can be small dripping points, but you can then fix that for hundreds of people in future.” It would be easy from his confident praise to think that he was an easy convert, but he is quick to dismiss that notion, “my background in the police was very traditional: I started out in uniform, moved to CID, and was taught to ‘catch and convict.’ I was good at it, and my team in Birmingham was the best. But one day I proudly called an old woman who had been a victim and told her we’d caught the perpetrator and she said to me, ‘but what are you going to do to stop it happening again?’ And I had no idea.

For Steve, the idea that he is helping to prevent future victims is a huge motivator, “I am doing more than well and every day drug-free is a miracle, but the most important thing for me is that no-one else gets hurt. My hope is for no more victims – but it’s more than a hope, it’s a belief.” His spiritual side comes across strongly, and he stresses again and again that he feels a responsibility to put things right, make amends, “you have robbed someone of their emotional security and it’s a duty to try to repair that spiritual damage. It’s not enough just never to do it again, it’s about what I can do about what I’ve already done and bring peace to people I’ve harmed.” Through the programme, he has met some of his victims using restorative justice conferencing, which he reflects is tough but necessary, “RJ has been massive. It takes a lot of courage and I try to go into it not thinking of myself to get beyond the fear.” He goes on, “It has really brought me into the damage and harm. I never considered what harm I was doing at the time and this has brought me in touch with that at the deepest level.

But restorative justice is not unique to this programme, so I was keen to find out what really made this approach different. “You’ve got to remember it’s not just the police, we’re only the first contact point. There are some parts of our justice system that can’t change, but there are others that can do something different. Those parts of the system already exist but the programme is like giving them a boost – it’s upping their game and helping them to perform better.” As an example, Steve described how, “the judge smiled at me during the bail process, and when I walked out of court the prosecution shook my hand, wished me his best and said he hoped I was successful. It was massive – it creates a sense within you that ‘I’m going to do this’ and gives you the drive to really do it.” As I pressed them to explain what makes that difference, Steve and DS Thompson agreed on the number one factor: honesty. “It’s been an eye opener for both sides,” explained DS Thompson, “people who can admit their criminality rehabilitate better. That’s the big difference – it changes the relationship because it’s not about trying to catch people out.” Steve agreed, “It’s about my level of honesty and willingness, otherwise it will fail… but now it feels as if I’m not alone on the journey.” He describes how he felt when he first heard about the programme, that it was the opportunity he had been looking for, “part of a bigger process that had started within myself.” He had failed another attempt to get clean, “failed because I hadn’t been honest. I was so broken spiritually and I wanted freedom from the shame, guilt and remorse. I needed to look someone in the eye and say what I had done. I was desperately thinking ‘how do I get out of this?’ so the timing was great.” For Steve, this honesty is about more than breaking free from addiction or rehabilitation, it’s about creating self-worth that you may not have felt in a long time, “you can still have dignity regardless of your past and you can only walk with your head held high if you are honest – the truth will set you free.

Although they agreed about the importance of honesty, neither Steve nor DS Thompson was naïve enough to believe that this alone is enough. They talked about “courage – being brave and thinking outside the box” and “humanity – people who work in the justice system looking beyond the crime to the person.” And that means raising aspirations about what is possible among those who work in the system and hold the key to change, “people don’t believe the police and the wider system can work like this – even my barrister, he liked it but he didn’t understand it.” It’s far from easy; the team itself continues to face challenges implementing the programme. And so they repeated that trying something different takes real conviction, “make sure you believe in it and be prepared to persuade others… everyone said we wouldn’t do this and it made me even more determined.” For DS Thompson, it has been a personal journey of discovery, “when someone first suggested it to me I thought they must be crazy. But then I read the paperwork and looked at the amount of burglaries we have each year and thought, ‘we have got to do something different.’ Really, the only reason it is viewed as ‘different’ is because we haven’t been doing the right thing up until now. It shouldn’t be viewed as exceptional, it has a huge potential in any metropolitan area and would benefit so many different groups.

In the car back to the station, I was quiet for a while, trying to summarise all the positivity, enthusiasm and courage I had just heard into one snappy soundbite or key message. How does this change how we think about crime? What does it tell us about what we should do about it? And what does it mean for frontline practitioners trying to make a difference? I kept thinking over Steve’s final words to me before I left, “I hope that my experience can change criminal justice… challenge the system to do something different for people coming behind me.” As I did so, PC Haynes spoke up, as if also considering those words, from the driver’s seat, “it feels like we were drawing in black and white” and DS Thompson completed the thought, “but now we’ve got colouring pencils.