Unfortunately, few of the thousands of young people who drift into crime ever make such a pragmatic assessment of their chosen “career”. This is something the Humber Mentoring Project (HMP) is trying to change.
“The kids we see have made a career choice to go into crime, but they don’t really know the full consequences of a criminal lifestyle,” says Chris Lennie, the scheme’s project manager. “They think it’s easy money, flash cars and plasma TVs. But the practicalities of something like drug dealing are that you will immediately be in competition with other drug dealers. So you’ve got the paranoia, the violence, not just to yourself but to your family.
“Or you think you are going to rob a house and come away with £2,000. The reality is you’ll be lucky to get £100 from the float of an off-licence.”
The project deliberately uses the analogy with legitimate careers. Prospective young criminals referred by youth offending teams, antisocial behaviour teams and pupil referral/inclusion units are asked to fill in job description cards listing the perks, prospects and personal qualities they might need for occupations such as gun dealer, handler, armed robber and drug runner.
These myths are then dispelled by the project’s mentors – ex-offenders with real-life experience of the criminal lifestyle.
“It’s not about preaching, saying that if you commit a crime you’ll get caught and go to prison,” says Lennie. “It’s your choice, but make sure you really know what you are getting into.”
Funded by Hull Council, the HMP has been running for three years. Covering issues such as gun and knife crime, TWOCing (car crime), drugs, racism and attitude to asylum seekers, its 20-session course has reduced re-offending rates in a notoriously difficult-to-reach group.
The course uses creative approaches to encourage young people to think through the consequences of their actions. In one session they play a version of Deal or No Deal to show how one criminal act can lead to another. Another session explores attitudes towards acceptable behaviour.
“We’ll say ‘would you lie to the police for a mate?’,” says Lennie. “‘Yeah, I would.’ OK would you lie to the police for a mate who’d just TWOCed a car, crashed it and killed a three-year-old kid? No? OK, that’s a boundary, you’ve already made.”
Other sessions highlight the negative effect of peer pressure.
“A mate asks you to hide a gun. But you don’t know where that gun’s been. And now your DNA’s all over it and you’re linked to a shooting in Liverpool,” says Lennie.
The programme takes a brutally pragmatic approach to violence. A “chart of violence”, listing acts ranging from verbal abuse to murder, is used to show how carrying a weapon simply raises the stakes in a fight. “If you get a reputation for carrying a knife, then if someone comes after you they’ll come with their mates.”
“Stab Man” illustrates the reality of fighting while drunk or on drugs.
Lennie explains: “We disorient them, then ask them to stab the ‘man’ with a marker pen. They’ll either miss him completely or hit a vital organ.”
Prostitution, drugs and violence
Key to the success of the programme is its use of mentors with real-life experience of crime. There are two female volunteers with experience of prostitution, drugs and domestic violence, and Peter Brook is employed as a senior mentor. A personal adviser, Emma Gamble, provides specific advice to young people.
Brook’s sessions have proved so popular that several truants have been caught sneeking back into school to attend them. It is easy to see why. Charismatic and with the gap-toothed grin of a street fighter, he fires off anecdotes gleaned from a criminal career that began at the age of eight. He has served 15 prison sentences and was once given an Asbo banning him from the whole of Leeds. Three years ago he was shot in the chest.
But isn’t there a danger that Brook’s racy tales from the frontline are glamorising the crime he is seeking to prevent?
“Yeah, it happens,” he says. “I’ve had a lad come up to me saying ‘I want to be like you’. But I saw him a couple of years later when he’d just finished doing some time. And he said ‘every night I was in that place I could hear your voice. It were like you were haunting me’. That lad’s gone to college now. That’s the way it works I can’t make people change the minute they walk out the door, but I can plant a seed.”
● Find out more about the project
This article appeared in the 10 July issue under the headline “Youth crime: it’s not all money and glamour”