Change your ways, or you stand to lose your liberty

A pioneering police team operating in Larne presents habitual criminals with a stark choice: either turn over a new leaf, or pay the penalty.

The PSNI Reducing Offending Unit works with serial offenders, offering them help to break the cycle of crime.

We don’t want to catch them offending: we want them to stop offending

But as Det Sgt Kerry Brennan explains, it’s no soft option.

“The unit was set up in Ballymena in 2008. It was a pilot and it was so successful that every district in the PSNI has a reducing offending unit.

“When it was set up, the crime figures dramatically reduced.”

The reduction is due in part to some clients breaking the cycle of crime, but it’s also down to those who do re-offend being referred to the justice system.

“The team will use the full vigour of the law to bring offenders to justice and put measures in place to prevent them from committing further crime,” Sgt Brennan explained.

That could mean police or court bail, a remand in custody and, if convicted, a prison sentence.

The scheme runs in six-monthly cycles. At the end of the most recent cycle, around 70 per cent of those the team worked with were behind bars.

“Essentially,” said Sgt Brennan, “prolific offenders and persistent offenders are the people who pose the greatest threat to safety in the community and in conjunction with Probation and Youth Justice, the police adopt a multi-agency approach ... to stop them from offending.

“We’re trying to change the pattern in that behaviour.

“We initially engage the individual in a multi-agency way and we make them aware that we can then signpost them.

“Unfortunately, some of our offenders are victims of their own circumstances and it’s a matter of changing those circumstances for them. That could mean a referral for an addiction problem.

“We’ve had offenders who’ve had literacy issues that mean they can’t claim the proper benefits and therefore resort to crime. It’s easy for us to amend that and the team are able to signpost that person so that they are able to claim the benefits.”

Sgt Brennan, whose last posting was a six-year stint with the PSNI’s child abuse detection unit, is used to dealing with criminals who pose the greatest threat to society.

She takes a pragmatic approach to her new role.

“We start out with a goal but it is up to the individual whether they want to change the pattern of their offending. We don’t want to catch them offending: we want them to stop offending and if they choose not to take the path of rehabilitation, then ultimately we will be using the full vigour of the justice system to prevent them from committing further offences.

“There others who have come under our control measures in the past six months who have behaved very well and they will most certainly drop off the list and we hope that we have changed the cycle of offending for those individuals. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a dedicated team of police officers dealing with the prolific offenders who pose the greatest risk to the community and taking what measures we can to keep the community safe.”

In the past week, the local Reducing Offending Unit launched a new initiative, in conjunction with the Youth Justice Agency.

The unit, which employs a youth diversion officer, is now operating Prevent And Deter. “It’s going to be aimed at under-18s who have come to the attention not only of police but the youth custody service and are now entering the criminal justice arena,” explained Det Sgt Kerry Brennan.

“The purpose of it is to deter them from offending and from becoming more prolific offenders in the future,” she added.

Latest available statistics for the Reducing Offenders Unit are for the whole of H District, which extends as far as Ballymoney and Coleraine, but they do give an indication of the activity.

In February, 50 priority offenders were being managed by officers within the specialist unit. Of those, 24 had previous convictions for burglaries and were considered to have “a propensity to commit further burglary offences”.

There were 34 incidents involving priority offenders during the month, with the result that six were put on bail and 22 were sent either to prison or a young offenders’ centre.