A pioneering scheme to steer low-level offenders including people caught with drugs for personal use away from a life of crime has been launched.
After receiving rigorous training, nine ‘navigators’ have now started working with suitable candidates who end up at one of the three police custody suites in North Wales after being arrested.
The support will be available in Welsh and English for North Wales Police’s Western, Central and Eastern Divisions by teams working in Caernarfon, St Asaph and Llay.
The initiative called Checkpoint Cymru has been championed by North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones.
Mr Jones, a former police inspector, decided to implement the scheme developed by Cambridge University after seeing it operate successfully in Durham where it has cut reoffending rates, reduced police and court time and given people the chance to avoid the stigma of a criminal record.
The success of the programme in breaking the negative cycle of crime and punishment has already earned it a national award from the Howard League for Penal Reform.
After being identified as being suitable by the custody sergeant, offenders are offered the chance to avoid prosecution by signing a four-month contract and committing to seeking help from rehabilitation services.
They are supervised by a skilled “navigator” and will face prosecution if they break the contract at any time.
At the same time, Mr Jones has introduced another initiative based on a different pilot project, the Bristol Drugs Programme, which has been equally successful.
People caught with small amounts of drugs will be steered towards a four-hours drug education programme similar in principle to the ones for drivers caught speeding and those who take part can avoid a criminal conviction.
Checkpoint is headed by Project Manager Anna Baker who oversees it from the Commissioner’s office and she said: “We had applications from a broad range of people with different experiences and skills to become navigators.
“Those appointed include Welsh-speakers so that the scheme can be delivered bilingually from each of the three centres as it’s important that those we are helping can communicate in their preferred language.
“But Checkpoint is absolutely not a soft option. It’s far more difficult for people to understand their own behaviour and take responsibility for it than just to go to court, accept a fine and carry on burying their heads in the sand.
“It is aimed at low-level offenders. Serious offences such as rape, robbery or murder will not be eligible for Checkpoint. Neither will driving offences, cases of serious domestic abuse or serious hate crime.
“Checkpoint offers eligible offenders a four-month long contract as an alternative to prosecution and if the subject successfully completes the contract and does not reoffend, no further action will be taken against them.
“But if they reoffend or fail to complete the contract they will be prosecuted and we will inform the courts of the circumstances of their failure to complete the contract.”
Navigator Sioned McQuilling, 48, from Blaenau Ffestiniog, will be based in Caernarfon and responsible for South Gwynedd, and she said: “I worked in a women’s refuge for 20 years and felt this was a new challenge and an opportunity to be involved in an exciting new project.
“What we’re doing is about leading people away from a life of crime, supporting them and giving them new opportunities because it’s better to be part of the project than to get a conviction which could affect your life choices and opportunities for years.”
Rob Williams, 29, from Llangefni, is also on the Caernarfon team and has a background in the Probation Service and in programmes aimed at helping people into employment.
He said: “It’s a matter of intervening early to get people back on the straight and narrow because even intelligent and capable people can find their employment opportunities limited by a criminal record.
“If you are doing something you enjoy and have more money in your pocket then you’re less likely to get involved in criminality.”
Ffion Goddard, 24, from Cerrigydrudion, a Masters graduate in Criminology from Bangor University, will be based in Llay and she said: “I have worked in the mental health sector and I’ve seen how people can easily get involved in situations and where that can lead.
“This kind of project hasn’t been done in Wales before and it’s exciting to be involved in something that can help people rebuild their lives without getting a criminal record.”
St Asaph-based Elin Morris, 25, a former NHS assistant psychologist from Caernarfon, said: “I have been interested in working with adults and in the criminal justice system.
“The main thing is going to be the well-being of people and giving them the best future chance in life through employment and well-being.”
Gwen Bradshaw, 35, from Oswestry, joined the navigators from the Prison Service where she worked in offender management and she said: “I wanted to get my teeth into something new and make a difference to people’s lives.
“I’ve worked with offenders and wanted to use my skills in a different environment to help people stay out of trouble and not be burdened by a criminal record.”
Sharon Roberts, from the Wrexham area, will be based at Llay after working in the Probation Service and at Berwyn Prison and she said: “I have had experience working with people with complex needs.
“It’s good to be involved with people before they get into the criminal justice system and in preventative measures aimed at stopping them becoming caught in that system.”
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones said: “This project has the potential to improve life chances because people avoid getting a criminal record, which can affect their employment and education opportunities.
“It may even save lives because criminalisation deters people from seeking help and encourages high risk behaviour and with the estimated cost of imprisoning someone now at £65,000 for the first year and £40,000 for every year after that the public savings could also be substantial.
“Checkpoint is aimed at people who have committed a lower level of offences and rather than taking them to court we can intervene and skilled navigators can direct them to the appropriate services.
“People are often motivated to commit crime due to underlying issues in their lives such as drug or alcohol misuse, mental and physical health issues, housing or homelessness, or problems to do with money or relationships.
“This will address the underlying causes of their offending and aim to reduce the risk of them re-offending.”