Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Pilot plan can help restore faith in the justice system

Volunteer mentors have a key role to play in reducing offending and making local communities safer, says Brian McCaughey

The Probation Board has always worked in, with and through communities in Northern Ireland.

We have a presence in every provincial town and we firmly believe that there needs to be local community involvement to help reduce offending and make communities safer.

Our role in working with communities has taken a significant step forward as the Probation Board has been approved as a designated organisation for Policing and Community Safety Partnerships (PCSPS). This means that the board and others will provide representation on all PCSPs and district PCSPs (DPCSPs) across Northern Ireland.

Why is this important? Probation is probably one of the least well understood parts of the criminal justice system. Yet we work at every stage of the process.

We supervise 4,300 people on any given day. We write more than 10,000 reports each year for the courts. We work in partnership with statutory, community, voluntary and private sector organisations.

Therefore, we have an opportunity to work with a range of agencies and we work with offenders from the point where they plead guilty (or are found guilty) and require a pre-sentence report to the point of release, or completion of a sentence.

Because of that, we have experience in understanding why people offend, how to help prevent them re-offending and how best to protect the vulnerable and children from becoming victims of crime. Everything we do is about preventing people being victims of crime.

We have real and practical experience of partnership work. We know that, to be truly effective in reducing crime, it takes more than any one agency and it takes communities to be part of the solution.

That is why we play a key role in public protection arrangements and are involved in the Reducing Offending in Partnership project.

I believe that my staff have something important to bring to PCSPs. The Designated Organisations Order (NI) 2013, which was approved by the Assembly and came into operation at the end of February, gives us this opportunity.

Every probation officer is social work-trained and registered with the Northern Ireland Social Care Council. They receive continual training on risk-assessment and risk-management and understand the most up-to-date techniques in preventing offending.

Their approach to problem solving, communicating with hard-to-reach groups and bringing about lasting change will, I hope, be a valuable resource for the PCSPs.

Taking our seats on PCSPs will also, I believe, help us consolidate the work we do with communities, including providing community grants, supervising community service and involving communities in work with offenders.

Every year, the Probation Board allocates more than £1m (approximately 6% of our budget) to provide grant-funding to organisations which can provide services for adjudicated offenders. We also provide around 190,000 hours of unpaid work to the community through the Community Service scheme.

We have recently launched a pilot Volunteer Mentoring scheme, because we recognise the value that they can provide to support our work in making communities safer.

They offer a core support role, with a distinctive, but complementary, role, alongside paid Probation Board staff. We have been delighted by the public's response.

Justice Minister David Ford has said that PCSPs will provide local people with an opportunity to address issues in their own area and, ultimately, will help build confidence in the justice system.

I believe that PCSPs present real opportunities for criminal justice organisations, communities and those who want to create safer streets and towns to work together to reduce crime and protect the public.

The Probation Board will play its role in reducing offending and making Northern Ireland safer. We look forward to working with others.

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