Norfolk police deal with offenders as young as four

Child offenders as young as four have been dealt with by police in Norfolk using alternatives to court, new figures have revealed. BEN KENDALL reports

According to statistics released by Norfolk police under the Freedom of Infomation Act, more than 500 under-12s are dealt with using restorative justice each year. 

The process involves asking offenders to apologise to victims and make amends for their wrong-doing.

Police say it provides an opportunity to divert those who are under 10 years old, the age of criminal responsibility, away from crime at an early age. It also allows the authorities to help them stay on the straight and narrow.

The method has been used with children who have committed crimes ranging from burglary to violence, although theft and vandalism are the most common offences. Young people dealt with in this way do not get a criminal record.

Extreme cases in the county include a four-year-old boy responsible for criminal damage, an eight-year-old burglar and two nine-year-olds who were accused of violence last year.

At the other end of the spectrum, restorative justice has been used with criminals up to 85-years-old, often for anti-social behaviour.

Peter Merry, head of criminal justice at Norfolk police, pointed out that while there were extreme cases in terms of age, the average age of those dealt with for criminal offences using the method was between 19 and 20-years-old.

He said restorative justice was used in cases where prosecution would not be appropriate or effective. This includes cases where offenders are too young to be prosecuted for lower level crimes. 

He added it provided an intervention opportunity which had not previously existed, allowing authorities to steer young people away from crime.

He said: “A punitive approach to crime is not always possible or desirable. In the past the only way of dealing with under-10s was through words of advice which was not always enough. 

“This approach is structured and is an chance to do something constructive and also stops young people falling through the cracks.

“They can be brought together with their victim to see the impact of their crime and, in many cases, will be asked to do something further to make amends. This could be writing a letter of apology or carrying out some work in the community.

“Punitive aspects are replaced by citizenship, for example working in charity shop or doing something to help an older generation.”

He said that the age of the individual was given careful consideration. Any action taken requires the consent of a parent or guardian.

“The younger they are, the more the activity will centre on them appreciating what they've done and learning from it,” Mr Merry added.

“It also gives us an opportunity to refer a case to children's service or the young offenders team, something which may not have happened consistently in the past. It means the young person gets the help and support they need to stay on the right track.”

A recent report from the Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Anti-social Behaviour called for the introduction of restorative justice across the country to halve the number of juveniles in custody.

Ilona Pinter, policy adviser for youth justice at The Children's Society, said: “The Children's Society supports restorative justice and believes that custody for children should be used as an absolute last resort.”

Mr Merry added that satisfaction rates with restorative justice among victims of crime were high, at about 90pc. Meanwhile re-offending rates stand at about 10pc, far lower than other more punitive methods such as court prosecutions 

“We have to ask 'what are we trying to achieve?',” he said. “We want to increase confidence in communities, bring some satisfaction to the victims and stop re-offending. This is one of the best methods of achieving all those goals.”

A total of 9,000 people have been involved in the restorative justice process in Norfolk to date, either as offenders or victims. It is often used with older offenders when it is thought the court system would no longer work. 

Mr Merry said: “At some point you have to accept that somebody is at an age where a punitive method would no longer be successful. In those cases, we can use restorative justice to address the concerns of victims and the community.”

Pamela MacKay