Plymouth charity praised by london-based justice group - but still has to battle for funding

Plymouth charity praised by london-based justice group – but still has to battle for funding

3 July 2015

Originally published in The Plymouth Herald

Carl Eve

A UNIQUE Plymouth charity praised by a London-based justice innovation group for its work reducing re-offending says it needs proper funding to continue its vital work.

CASS – the Community Advice and Support Service – is based at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court and offers on-the-spot advice, direct support with practical problems and referral into long-term support to anyone who needs it – defendants, victims or their families.

CASS is open five days a week and is run by a team of two paid workers and an army of volunteers who all receive training to help identify and respond to a range of issues clients face, including mental illness and poverty.

The Centre for Justice Innovation, as part of its Better Courts programme which aims to help find ways of reducing reoffending, studied the work of CASS over two years, interviewing clients and examining outcomes.

Their study of CASS’s caseload notes how during 2014 “debt, housing and mental health” were the biggest identified needs for clients and 15 percent went to CASS to get a better understanding of the complex and intricate criminal justice process.

The author of the Better Courts case study found that CASS – which became a charity in April this year – focused on working with “low-level persistent offenders, who cycle through the criminal justice system, to prevent their future return to court.”

The report said: “These offenders tend to commit low level offences like public order offences (like disorderly conduct in public), offences that on their own may seem minor but which end up absorbing a good deal of the criminal justice system’s resources. Because of their offending itself tends to be relatively low level and therefore unlikely to warrant a formal community sentence, this client group cycle through courts regularly, receiving low level dispositions like conditional discharges and fines.”

While the image of court attendees is often stereotyped as a line of drug-addicted burglars and drunk thugs, the statistics show a very different picture with poverty being the key factor.

The report found that 40 percent of CASS clients were identified as out of work or on benefits, 25 percent lacked suitable, stable accommodation or were homeless, 22 percent had debt problems, 12 percent had problems with current benefits and 12 percent had “poor emotional well-being” which was linked with mental ill health. The reported noted how 11 percent of CASS’s clients had alcohol misuse issues while just five percent had drug misuse issues.

The authors noted how “There is a complex interplay between employment, debt, offending and reoffending. Evidence points towards employment status and income affecting and being influenced by offending.

“It is clear from our look at the CASS caseload that there are many people who come through our courts who have needs that, if unaddressed, are likely to increase their propensity to offend.”

The authors interviewed stakeholders, including magistrates and police as well as clients, about CASS’s impact.

Many clients admitted CASS’s involvement triggered “long-term life changes”, while other stakeholders felt CASS was “producing long-term reduction in reoffending rates by engaging people with services that would provide long-term support with factors underlying offending such as addictions, mental illness and homelessness.”

Concluding its report, the Centre For Justice Innovation found CASS played “an important role in connecting community services to those using the court and helps navigate the court process”.

In addition it addressed “significant unmet needs of people coming to court” and was adopting practices which “is strongly suggesting that it is making an impact on its aims to improve compliance with court orders and thereby reducing reoffending and costs incurred by those returning to courts.”
The Centre’s glowing praise was well received by Carole Edwards, CASS’s general manager, but she voiced her frustration at her endless battles to see the charity better funded.

The project started nine years ago as one of ten pilots in community justice across England. However, as the other pilots fell by the wayside, the Plymouth CASS went from strength to strength – while its funding became increasingly problematic.

Carole said: “There are a lot of changes in the criminal justice system at the moment, including in the Prison Service and Probation. What I feel gets missed is that the court itself is a prime spot to work with people, to be a rehabilitator and not just a processor.

“It is a place ideally suited to address the needs of vulnerable people at a time of crisis, at a time when they are most likely to respond.
“This report was into CASS at the Plymouth site, but we also have people working at Truro and Bodmin.

“Other courts have tried to replicate what we do but have been unable and the main reason is there is no mainstream funding and no statutory requirement to do the work we do.

“We’re ten years old in October but we still rely on charity funding and a benefactor who is currently helping to replicate our work at a London court.

“In order to survive, we have to find the pennies and go to the lottery to keep going. We’re picking up breadcrumbs from the table to do this work.
“We’ve been shown to work at reducing reoffending by other independent researchers as well as the Centre for Justice Innovation and we’ve been recognised as best model practice – but no-one is looking at us from a Government level.

“If we are to continue, if others who are in great need are to benefit from our intervention and support, if reoffending is to be reduced, then it is time the Government begin supporting us.”

CASES dealt with by CASS:

* Single mum referred to CASS while she was going through family court and unable to afford solicitor as Legal Aid did not cover expense. CASS helped paperwork including “statement of concerns”. Staff felt that without this key support she would have gone to court unsure of what to do or where to get help. CASS also offered emotional support and “readdress balance of power” as her ex-partner was represented by a solicitor in court and she was not. Much of her support came from a CASS volunteer doing additional hours.

* Father asked for CASS to help at Family court after not being allowed to see his infant daughter for a year. His ex-partner and mother of his child was stopping his visitations, despite contact order in place.

He felt this caused him spiralling into crisis, his mental health deteriorated and he began to use cannabis to manage his depression and despair.
CASS helped him make a plan of action and signpost him to counselling services, as well as help him make GP appointment to manage his depression. Also helped him with contacting drug support group.

He was urged to return a few days later to discuss legal routes to get access to his child. Unable to afford a solicitor CASS staff researched issue and found documentation which led to application for fee exemption or remission.

Motivated and hopeful, the man renewed his efforts to get in contact with his child.

A CASS worker said: “He told me he felt the team at CASS went out of our way to support him through this process, stating that we had done more for him than any agency in the last three years and that he would recommend us to anyone”.

* Man charged with criminal damage and assault and his case was adjourned for pre-sentence report. A CASS volunteer, sitting at the back of court, heard he was sofa-surfing so they informed him of their work. He came back the following day and they put him in touch with a Plymouth homeless support agency. CASS staff later learned he was jailed for 12 weeks, but his father told them his son’s response to CASS’s efforts was “It was like a breath of fresh air because he was at a point in his life where he didn’t know where to turn.”

On release the man contacted CASS who activated new referrals to the homeless support agency and raised a means hearing with court listings as he had no benefits in place to pay his fines – risking another court case. Two days later he contacted CASS to say he had been giving a room, was attending Drug Addicts Anonymous and was starting a plastering course the next day.

A CASS workers said: “He seemed extremely motivated and said he ‘doesn’t want to go back to prison’.

* Female client extremely anxious in late 2014 as she was on a suspended sentence and had reoffended. It was “clear her life was incredibly chaotic”

An ex-heroin user, heavily convicted for shoplifting offences, she was already being helped from Plymouth-based drug support agencies and social services but she had a number of debts hanging over her.

CASS supported her during her court appearances, particularly as she was a single mother at risk of going to prison.

Helping her complete the complicated Legal Aid forms, CASS spoke with her barrister and made sure she understood proceedings. She was given a three month deferred sentence as long as she did not reoffend, abide by a child protection plan and work with the drug support agency.

As a result she had now told CASS her life is less chaotic and appears to be moving her life “forward”.