Point of no return

Cities, say their critics, are overcrowded, aggressive,
unfriendly places whose inhabitants lead anonymous lives. The
countryside, on the other hand, is where healthy people thrive and
a sense of community, long lost in the cities, prevails.

Or is that much-trumpeted community spirit merely a euphemism
for everyone knowing everyone else’s business?

Certainly, for young offenders returning to their small towns or
villages the sense of community may feel less welcoming, as the
Howard League for Penal Reform found in a study on youth crime in
rural areas.(1)

Prompted by the realisation that there had been little research
into the transition and resettlement of young offenders from prison
back into rural communities, Sussex University psychology lecturer
Rosie Meek interviewed 22 young men at a young offender institution
in south west England. She found high levels of anxiety at the
prospect of returning to places where they had a bad reputation,
matched by disillusion at the lack of suitable activities that
might help give young people a purpose.

The high visibility of young people in small communities was
seen as a particular problem. Callum, 20, is from a small coastal
town in Devon. Having acquired a bad name for petty theft when he
was younger, he felt he had been unable to shake off the
community’s negative image of him, fuelled by reports in his local
newspaper. He says: “It is such a small town they’re always writing
about me.”

Rick, also 20, is serving a two-year jail term for grievous
bodily harm. A traveller all his life, he then moved with his
family to a house in a Somerset village. As a traveller, he felt
stigmatised and picked out. “Before we even moved to the village we
had a reputation,” he says. “I was banned from the pub before I
even set foot in there. Once you got a record, they will keep an
eye out for you. In a big town you’re just another face. But in a
little village you hear people two miles down the road talking
about you.”

A recurring theme was the sheer boredom of growing up in the
countryside. Though rural areas may be wonderful for young
children, teenagers find that there is nothing to do and nowhere to
go outside school – except hang around in groups. And then they are
seen as threatening, particularly by older people. Services that
might divert them from getting into trouble are either non-existent
or difficult to access. And if a young person has specialist needs,
services are not always available outside the bigger population

Carol Long, head of the crime reduction division at
Northumberland Council, agrees there are differences between urban
and rural areas that need to be addressed.

She says: “Getting equity of provision is one of the challenges
for us. Courts don’t sit as frequently in more rural areas. In
Northumberland, for instance, they sit fortnightly rather than

“The courts themselves can feel that they have to push hard for
services. If a magistrate is going to take the risk of a community
sentence, which involves a supervision and surveillance programme,
rather than a custodial sentence, they want to be satisfied that
[in a rural area] there would be the right level of supervision and
that it would be delivered effectively. I would say that, as a
youth offenders’ service, we have to work hard with magistrates to
give them that confidence.”

She also points out that, although it used to be rare for a
young person charged with an offence to be identified publicly,
“it’s easier now to get agreement for a young person’s details to
be made available once an Asbo has been made”. If posters
emblazoned with your name and photograph are pasted around your
village, it’s easy to see how a teenager can become widely known as
a troublemaker.
Some of the differences between resettling into rural and urban
areas can be exaggerated, says Mervyn Barrett, resettlement manager
for Nacro, but he acknowledges that the countryside presents
particular challenges when it comes to housing provision, drug and
alcohol problems, education and employment.

“The most crucial issue is employment,” he says. “The reason
it’s an issue is because they can’t get it, and the reason they
can’t get it is they don’t have much to offer. They need education
and training to bring them up to speed. There are the facilities to
get them those skills nearly everywhere apart from in the most
remote rural areas. But in terms of finding employment, there are
fewer options in a rural area than in a city.”

Housing in rural areas for young offenders leaving YOIs is also
an issue. Since the Homelessness Act 2002, housing for returning
prisoners is supposed to be a priority. But, in areas like Devon
and Cornwall, Barrett explains, there are few hostels or supported
housing places. He says: “In cities you might not be able to get a
place because all the hostels are full; in rural areas you can’t
get in because they don’t exist.” If a person under 18 is estranged
from their family, they will face major problems in finding
somewhere to live because they are not classed as an adult in terms
of benefit entitlements.

Support from friends and family is key to helping offenders of
any age resettle. But one young man in the Howard League study felt
so strongly that he intends cutting the ties from his Dorset home
town completely. This will, however, remove him from any form of
stabilising family support. Another inmate, Chris, 19, is anxious
about whether he will be able to make a fresh start when he goes
home. “I don’t want to go back to many of my old mates ‘cos I seem
to slide back to my old routine which I don’t want to do.” And yet,
in rural communities, there are limited numbers of young people to
mix with, and so it can be that much more difficult to break out of
a peer group that may have helped you to get into drink, drugs and
trouble in the first place.

Clearly, education and training, help with drug and alcohol
misuse, housing and recreational services are more difficult to
provide in spread-out rural areas. On her Northumberland patch,
Long says not all criminal behaviour is seen as an official
priority so not all of it attracts funding. For example, mobile
phone crime in her county is low among young people, but salmon
poaching is a problem and is upsetting the fragile rural economy of
Berwick upon Tweed. To deal with this would require a specialist
team – and that would cost a lot of money.

“There’s a failure to recognise that to run services in rural
areas is much more costly,” Long says. “To an extent the Youth
Justice Board does recognise this but, generally, when funding is
allocated, it is thought that there isn’t much crime in rural
areas. But there’s more than you think, and it costs more to

  1. Once upon a Time in the West; Social Deprivation and Rural
    Youth Crime, The Howard League for Penal Reform, 2005.


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