Originally published in The Guardian
Four years ago, single mum of three Karen* spent 10 months in prison after being convicted of fraud. Like many caught up in the criminal justice system, her offending did not come out of nowhere – she had been struggling with multiple and complex issues, including mental health problems.
Most low-level offenders get little or no support to address the problems behind their offending. But because she was convicted at Plymouth Magistrates court, Karen was able to benefit from a special service run by my charity, Rethink Mental Illness, in partnership with independent thinktank the new economics foundation.
The Community Advice and Support Service (CASS) helps people in Plymouth and across Cornwall to address the root causes of offending. Working inside the courts, the team is able to offer support directly to offenders and to magistrates, by providing them with a better understanding of the backgrounds of defendants and what sort of sentence will work.
The Centre for Justice Innovation and the new economics foundation have published a new report Better Courts: Cutting Crime Through Court Innovation which shows that there are realistic opportunities for delivering better courts and improved justice. This report highlights a common perception that the role courts play is purely technical – hearing cases fairly and handing down sentences. Our work demonstrates that if you focus on the factors that bring people before them, courts can play a significant role in creating long-term reductions in crime.
Staff at CASS gave Karen practical support while she was behind bars – in particular, helping her to ensure her children stayed together. They also put her in touch with agencies who could support her on her release. Four years on, Karen has not reoffended and is now volunteering at the very service that helped her get back on her feet.
When I have visited CASS, what struck me was the collaborative way in which the staff approach their work. They have built up strong relationships with the magistrates, solicitors, probation, court administration staff and the police. In addition, they have excellent local links with organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, and substance misuse services. By acting as a single point of contact, staff manage to align the interests of all parties involved to ensure they are all working together as effectively as possible.
I noticed that some of the offenders were completely overwhelmed at having ended up in court. For many, it was their first offence. The shock of the situation created an opportunity for them to reassess their lives, meaning they were more open and receptive to the support offered to them.
The beauty of this model lies in its simplicity and cost-effectiveness. The service provides excellent value for money by utilising volunteers. With just a small number of paid staff, the main bulk of the case work is carried out by volunteers, many of whom are ex-service users themselves.
For the first five years, the service survived with a combination of trust finding, money from the probation service and subsidies from Rethink Mental Illness. Despite its success, two years ago the project was on the verge of closing. At that point the service joined up with the new economics foundation.
They helped CASS to secure trust funding and are carrying out an evaluation study of the service, to help us better demonstrate its impact. In addition, they are helping us to spread the word about the success of the model. Court officials from all over the country are now coming to see how the service works and replicate our methods.
The project is a win-win situation for both the voluntary and criminal justice sectors, helping them both achieve their aims. The fact that this model uses teams of well-supported volunteers at a time when charities and the criminal justice system are facing squeezed budgets, makes it an idea that would be costly to ignore.
*Names have been changed