Only by tackling the causes of crime can we stop reoffending

Probation Board chair Vilma Patterson. Picture John Murphy Aurora PA
Probation Board chair Vilma Patterson. Picture John Murphy Aurora PA

Today the Probation Board for Northern Ireland launches its consultation for a new corporate plan and wants to hear from the public; those working in criminal justice; those working across government departments; and the community and voluntary sector about how PBNI can help make streets and towns across NI safer.

At the same time we also want to use this period to explain what probation does and how it works.

Those who break the law and those who would seek to do us harm should be punished and imprisoned. But it is equally important that people are prevented from reoffending in the future.

Probation’s role within criminal justice is to rehabilitate and resettle offenders by challenging and changing their behaviour.

We know that in order to prevent reoffending we need to tackle the root causes of crime or the underlying reason why people offend. Only by tackling the causes of crime can we move people away from the cycle of continued criminality.

Our approach to rehabilitation is to deal with every offender in an individual way putting in place the most appropriate response to tackle their offending.

That may mean using programmes and interventions to challenge distorted thinking about their crimes; dealing with addictions or mental health issues; signposting them to training and educational services; or ensuring that they have access to appropriate and sustainable accommodation.

We can only reduce crime when we effectively tackle the reasons why people offend.

Research shows that using probation staff to do this through the supervision of community sentences has the potential to deliver better outcomes than short prison sentences.

That is why probation under the leadership of Director Cheryl Lamont and Deputy Director Paul Doran developed an enhanced combination order as an alternative to short prison sentences in response to a request from the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

The Enhanced Combination Order (ECO) is being piloted in the Court Divisions of Armagh & South Down and Ards.

The pilot scheme aims to divert offenders from short–term custodial sentences by offering judges a more intensive community order with a focus on rehabilitation, reparation, restorative practice and desistance.

We know probation works in reducing reoffending and making communities safer. This order will help prevent reoffending by more effectively rehabilitating offenders.

This is just one of a number of innovative projects run by probation which aims to reduce crime.

Other projects we run include the Inspire project designed to deal specifically with female offenders; restorative justice pilots to assist offenders make reparation for the harm they have done; and supervision of community service which delivers unpaid work to communities throughout NI. All of these projects are making a real difference every day in changing attitudes and changing lives.

Research clearly shows that developing innovative community projects which challenge offenders and rehabilitate them has the potential to create a more cost effective, efficient and fairer justice system. That is exactly what the Probation Board for Northern Ireland is seeking to do.

Over the course of this consultation period we want to work with communities throughout NI to develop that work and provide better outcomes and safer communities for all.

• Vilma Patterson MBE is chair of the Probation Board