Public Spirit with a Kick: A Growing Band of Civic Entrepreneurs Is Challenging the Culture and Lethargic Performance of Our Basic Social Services

By Leadbeater, Charles | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Spirit with a Kick: A Growing Band of Civic Entrepreneurs Is Challenging the Culture and Lethargic Performance of Our Basic Social Services


Leadbeater, Charles, New Statesman (1996)


It was only the second case that Sergeant Bob Gregory had handled in Thames Valley's innovative restorative justice programme. Gregory is a longstanding officer, well built with a booming voice, the antithesis of trendy policing. He was quite sceptical about the approach to cautioning young offenders he had been asked to develop.

On the face of it the case was simple. A boy had been caught stealing a neighbour's car. A commonplace vehicle theft. Under the traditional system for cautioning first-time offenders, the youth would have been given a stern lecture by an inspector. He wouldn't have been required to show much understanding of the consequences of his actions, nor to offer any reparation to the victim, who would have learnt the outcome of the case through an impersonal, standard letter. The restorative justice programme takes a much more demanding approach.

Under the scheme that had just started in Aylesbury, the offender, accompanied by his mother, was to attend a "restorative conference" organised by Gregory, at which the victim and his family would explain what had happened to them.

The victim of the crime, a middle-aged man, had rushed home from work to catch a train to London to see a friend who was in hospital. Through his bedroom window he saw the young boy steal his car. He ran out of the house after the car. After a few minutes the man returned, panting, to get in a neighbour's car to give chase. His wife was alarmed: three months earlier her husband had had heart bypass surgery and she was convinced that the stress of the chase would give him another heart attack. She feared it might be the last she would see of her husband. In panic she ran to get her son, playing football in a nearby park. As she ran towards her son, gesticulating, she collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital, unconscious.

When the family started to tell its story the boy hardly seemed to take note. He stared out of the window. He seemed disrespectful. The atmosphere in the room grew tense. But as the victim's wife started to explain that she thought she might never see her husband alive again, the thief started to look at her. When the wife finished her tale, the young offender collapsed, his head on the table. He sobbed uncontrollably for ten minutes.

When the boy had recovered, he began to apologise profusely, not just to the family but to his mother. The victim's son talked about his own scrapes with the law when he was young. The two families travelled home together. They remain on friendly terms.

That story, in a nutshell, is the case for restorative justice. The restorative caution is a significant innovation in what is one of the police force's most basic "products". It involves a completely different philosophy and practice of policing.

Under the traditional caution, the rate of reoffending is 35 per cent. In the Aylesbury scheme's first year, the rate was 4 per cent. Gregory reckons that longer term, the reoffending rate is likely to be about 10 per cent. He explains: "Courts do virtually nothing for victims. They are largely left out of the process. Yet people leave our conferences not feeling like victims any more. They have been able to confront the offender, voice their feelings and invariably they leave feeling better. For offenders a court appearance is technical, distant, they don't have to engage with it or explain themselves. A caution delivered by an inspector is often something they do not have to engage with. It's like being told off by a headmaster. They grit their teeth and get through it. In our approach they have to look the victim in the eye. Most of them break down. It's tougher than court."

Gregory, and the many colleagues who helped him to develop and then spread the scheme across the force, is a civic entrepreneur. He has innovated a better way of organising the public sector's resources to create a more effective service, which delivers more social value and creates more lasting social capital. …

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