Unlocking the good

The word payback can have negative connotations, but at the
Sunderland’s Community Payback scheme the emphasis is firmly on the
positive. The scheme works with young offenders and is run by
Sunderland youth offending service.

Community Payback is a nationwide government-backed initiative.
It’s an extension of the reparation orders that youth offending
teams have been operating for the past two years, of which the
basic premise is that young offenders will repair the damage they
have caused to their victims.

It allows magistrates to impose reparation orders when there isn’t
an individual victim in the crime, such as graffiti on council
property, or when the victim doesn’t want anything to do with the
offender. The aim is to prevent young people from offending or
reoffending, get them to accept responsibility for their actions
and give them the opportunity to put something back into the

The Sunderland scheme has been running since April 2000. Up until
October 2001 it was run by rehabilitation agency Nacro. When that
arrangement came to an end, the work was taken on by a social
worker from the youth offending service. Finally, Greg Wheatley
took over as restorative justice officer in June 2002.

Wheatley comes with good credentials for the job. A police officer
for more than 30 years, he retired and joined the youth offending
service in Gateshead where he worked for its Community Payback

When Wheatley started in neighbouring Sunderland, there were five
young people working on just three projects. Sunderland works with
22 current projects while 11 more have been agreed and are waiting
to start. As well as Wheatley, the team comprises a restorative
justice manager, two part-time workers and three sessional workers.
In the six months that the scheme has been running, it has had
referrals for 375 young people, of whom about 220 have completed
the programme.

Community Payback demonstrates to the community that the young
person can make amends for their behaviour. It gives them the
chance to learn new skills and change their lifestyle. Involvement
is voluntary for those on a final police warning, or it can be part
of a plan of intervention, or a result of a court order.

But it is not just about trying to achieve the goals of a court
order. It helps young people to increase self-esteem, and to
encourage them to change their lives and help others. Participation
is generally two hours a week, and review meetings decide how long
this should continue. Those on long-term orders of six months can
carry out two hours a week for the duration of the order if it is
felt this is warranted.

Young offenders who are referred to the scheme may have committed
offences ranging from antisocial behaviour, shoplifting and minor
criminal damage to burglary and car theft. It also takes on
persistent young offenders through the local intensive supervision
and surveillance programme (ISSPs are being run by the Youth
Justice Board on a pilot basis in several areas of the UK). About
11 per cent of referrals are girls, whose offences are generally
minor assaults and shoplifting.

Young people are referred by youth offending case workers, while
those on reparation orders are referred by the courts. Wheatley is
the case worker for court referrals. After a referral, the young
person, accompanied by a parent, meets a member of staff for an

The community payback programme is explained to them and they are
asked whether they have any interests or skills. The idea behind
this is to try to fit them into a scheme where they will be good at
something: “We don’t want to set them up to fail,” says

They are also given a risk assessment. This process examines
whether there are other issues around behaviour or lifestyle that
may contribute to their offending behaviour. If this is the case,
they are also referred to an appropriate service, such as courses
for anger management or victim awareness, or to manage substance

“If we can address why they are offending in the first place and
change their perceptions as to what they are doing and why it is
wrong, then they might not reoffend,” says Wheatley.

Once a project is nominated and agreed, the young person generally
attends for a two-hour session a week. One member of staff works
with five young people. Whether this happens on a weekday, in the
evenings or at the weekend is dictated by their age – whether they
are in school, further education, or employment.

Community Payback can put young people onto projects that are
relevant to their offence, so, for example, if they have daubed
graffiti on walls and buildings, they clean it off. Young people
are also placed in schemes in the area where they live, as that
tends to be where they have offended.

Wheatley tries to find projects that are interesting and work
carried out by young people has included helping out at the Strang
Riding Centre for disabled people, where they muck out, groom,
clean tack, and lead the horses round; redecorating a healthy
living centre; conservation work in local parks; and renovating a
Salvation Army centre that had been closed because of vandalism and
street disorder. The schemes work in partnership with community
organisations that have approached the council for assistance with
their venture because they are struggling financially.

“It’s taking young people back into their community. Kids get a
massive amount of bad press and little good press. What we have
achieved is through the kids – including winning the Community Care
award. They do 80 per cent of the work,” says Wheatley.

Another scheme, for young people who have shoplifted, involves the
police, a local Asda store and a shopping precinct. There are six
two-hour sessions, beginning with talks by the police and security
staff at the shops explaining the consequences of their offence.
The project is hoping to open a cycle repair shop so that young
people can restore damaged bikes and offer them back to the

The £5,000 award money from Community Care will be spent on
developing the Positive Images arts scheme. This encourages young
people to use art to reflect on their offending and the effect it
has on other people. So, for example, photography is used by
getting young offenders to take pictures of the damage caused by
graffiti. The scheme is run through Northern Arts Foundation with
sponsorship from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Another specialised scheme is for young people involved in
fire-related offences, such as arson or setting fire to rubbish
bins. Firefighters talk to them during the first session and the
offenders’ community payback involves cleaning fire service
equipment and delivering fire safety leaflets.

And the scheme intends to start getting its message across earlier.
Staff are going to start making presentations in local schools, to
increase school children’s awareness of the consequences of

So does it work? Although it’s too early for Sunderland to have any
meaningful figures, when Wheatley was at Gateshead, 82 per cent of
the young people taking part in the payback scheme during 2001 had
not reoffended.

“We build up relationships with the young people and try to use
staff as mentors and a positive influence,” says Wheatley. In
Gateshead, 47 per cent of young people returned to the scheme as
volunteers. The same principle appears to be working in Sunderland,
where already 10 per cent of young people have come back to act as
volunteers for a few sessions.

Wheatley sums up the scheme: “It’s meant to be a punishment, but I
see it as a learning opportunity – for them to learn more about
themselves, understand why society is unhappy with what they have
done and how they can readdress that and put it right.”

– The Young Offenders category was sponsored by Corvedale Care.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.