Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

JOANNE BENSON (Darlington Youth Offending Service)

JOANNE BENSON (Darlington Youth Offending Service)

Joanne Benson (Darlington Youth Offending Service)

AWARD WINNER 2014-15: Jo wins an Award for her work as Manager of Darlington Youth Offending Service, which, under her leadership, has been rated “outstanding” by the Youth Justice Board and has seen a huge reduction in first time youth offenders entering the court system. Jo is described in her nomination as “a dedicated and skilled leader, who really cares for the welfare of her vulnerable young charges”.

Joanne BensonJoanne Benson has already led her small Youth Offending Service team in Darlington to a national Howard League Award for Restorative Justice, created a suite of tools and interventions aimed at young people, developed extremely effective partnerships with both the Durham Constabulary and Durham University and, above all, achieved an inspiring and measurable reduction in first time youth offenders entering the Darlington court system by an extraordinary 81% since Restorative Justice was introduced in 2008.

Jo was enthusiastically nominated for her Butler Trust Award by George Osborne, of the HQ Partnerships Team of Durham Constabulary, who describes “a dedicated and skilled leader, who really cares for the welfare of her vulnerable young charges. As a sometimes cynical, long-serving Police Officer, I find that refreshing and highly commendable. An award to Jo would nationally broadcast how important these qualities are.”

George reports that the Youth Offending Service (YOS) team Jo heads is rated “Outstanding” by the Youth Justice Board for its work across a whole range of areas: restorative justice; partnership working; preventing offending and re-offending; and working with young people coming out of custody. Particularly impressive, he says, is the quality of her collaboration with the prestigious Durham University, involving ‘master classes’ delivered to undergraduates by YOS staff, as well as research into key youth offending issues by students.

“Jo and her staff are not resting on their laurels, however,” adds George. Jo’s team have developed the Definitive Intervention System, an approach designed to deliver a consistent but bespoke intervention pack for each young person on a community order, regardless of staff turnover, sickness and unforeseen absences.

George also notes how Jo and her team have pushed forward with early intervention, working in partnership with the Durham Constabulary’s existing ‘Fearless’ programme. As well as working with 11-16 year olds across all the local comprehensive schools, the partnership is developing a session for 8-11 year olds as part of the Constabulary’s Junior Neighbourhood Watch programme.

George also notes how he was struck, in between accolades for Jo from a wide range of colleagues like “personable”, “fiercely loyal”, “vastly experienced” and “highly respected”, by a letter pinned up in the YOS office from Hayley, a young offender who Jo had worked with early on in her career.

“I was lucky I had a very supportive YOS worker called Joanne Benson,” writes Hayley, who served 2 years in prison for Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) with intent, Robbery and Affray. “She made me think about my life and I decided I wanted to change. I now have a good job, a boyfriend of 3 years and I have stayed out of trouble. I just wanted to let you know that not everyone who’s been in prison is a waste of space – whoever said once a criminal always a criminal?”

“In all the reports and other documents I have read,” says George, “I have never seen a better justification of the work of an individual and her team.”

Hayley’s story encapsulates the human face of an enormous amount of dedicated work, and continues to be an inspiration to Jo herself. Hayley’s mother, Dawn, provides her own testimonial. “When Hayley ended up in court, I think I was on autopilot and Joanne was brilliant, and talked us both through each process giving us both support and guidance where needed, and a friendly listening ear.”

This would be good work, in itself, but Hayley goes on to describe quite how committed Jo was. In a poem she writes, “You were my YOS worker and a good one indeed / You were always there when I was in need…” and “If it wasn’t for you I’d be locked up or worse, I’d have probably killed someone over a purse. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Hayley has also described the remarkable level of engagement Jo has shown. “Joanne came to visit me [in prison] without fail each month, even travelling by train to Wales which took hours to get there and then had an overnight stay…It really is impossible to list everything Joanne has done for me, she goes the extra miles and puts others first before herself.”

Hayley continues “It’s now 14 years since I first met Joanne and I consider this woman a great friend of mine, without her help and support and never giving up on me I doubt I would be where I am today. Today I am married, a mother and I work for Nacro, the crime reduction charity…ironic, right? People grow up and change (well most do). I couldn’t of done it all without Joanne, so thanks Jo! I owe you!”

Passionately committed to early intervention and relationship building, Jo is now extending her work by training care home staff to help them manage and support the “young and harmed persons” without the need for escalation to partner agencies. Yet as Joanne says, for all the awards, personal testimonials from colleagues, and young people whose lives she has affected, as well as impressive reductions in re-offending rates, “This is only the beginning and I will continue to lead to deliver more, in order to divert young people away from offending and helping them move forward to lead fulfilled and positive lives.”

The impact of Joanne’s work is clear, not only in measurable improvements across the community she serves, but it the lives of her colleagues, the young she works with – and their families, too, who are, of course, also part of the community.


[Joanne Benson gives her account of the work for which she won her Award]

Every young person who has offended must be seen as an ‘individual’ so their needs can be adequately met. My work as manager of Darlington Youth Offending Service has enabled every young person to have a tailored package of intervention, support through the court process, in the community and in custody.

The aim of this initiative is to help the young person identify the cause of their behaviour and ultimately desist from crime. The service given has been recognised as ‘Outstanding’.

The service I manage has been described as “dynamically led, forward thinking and a service that continually strives to bring fresh, innovative approaches to its core function of reducing offending and re-offending by young people”.

I have worked tirelessly to promote and embed the principles of early intervention, positive engagement and effective relationships across partnerships in order to deliver bespoke packages of intervention for all young people who come in to contact with the service. In particular, I have been recognised by the Butler Trust Awarding Panel for initiating ‘early intervention approaches’ within the borough of Darlington.

In collaboration with Durham Constabulary, I developed and introduced two unique non-sanctioned disposals, the pre-reprimand disposal and the Restorative Disposal. The main element of both disposals is the use of restorative practise and tailored approaches to support young people to gain an in depth understanding of the harm they have caused.

This new way of working did not come without its complications. Change can be unsettling and some staff within the service had to modify their mind set from a punitive enforcement to diversion and collaborative working with the young person. It was important to change attitudes such as “the YOS is going soft” in order to get some staff to engage in a meaningful way with the new initiatives.

Staff were asked to work in a new non-traditional way and to embrace new ideas and concepts at a time when they were unsure whether or not their jobs were safe. The continuing backdrop of austerity measures within the Local Authority made for some general discontent, low morale and lack of enthusiasm for new ways of working at a time when services were being cut and dismantled. It took a lot of time and commitment to turn this negative stance about and engagement throughout the process with all staff was paramount.

I am pleased to say that all staff are now fully on board with this way of working and appreciate the necessity to divert cases where appropriate. Within a 5 year period of implementation, the service has seen an impressive 81% reduction of those young people entering the criminal justice system. That is success for all!

Building on the success of such a huge reduction in first time entrants, I instigated delivery of ‘Prevention Sessions’ within nine comprehensive schools in Darlington.

One hour interactive sessions are delivered to 11-16 year olds in which students learn about the different stages of the youth justice system, legal consequences in relation to each of these stages and the negative consequences of offending for their future lives. I felt this involvement with schools to be crucial as historically, initial contact with young people begins at the point of offending, whereas building on the principles of early intervention affords young people to be formerly aware of the consequences of such actions.

To support and enhance this provision, I have developed a partnership with Durham Constabulary to expand and support their existing ‘Fearless’ programme, which forms part of the Constabulary’s Neighbourhood Watch programme. The range of provision supports age appropriate sessions to 8-11 year olds.

Partnership working is a consistent theme throughout the nomination for which I was awarded. I continue to develop opportunities to collaborate wherever possible with the most recent arrangement being with Durham University.

In June 2014, I met with Durham University Director of Undergraduate Criminology, Dr Ivan Hill, in order to discuss, plan and outline the beginning of a Memorandum Of Understanding between the YOS and the University. Getting a foot in the door and working collaboratively with the university was made easier as Ivan Hill was my main lecturer at Sunderland University when I was a student studying Criminology!

Myself and Dr Hill developed the MoU which was subsequently approved by the Durham University School of Applied Social Sciences Senior Management Board. The MoU has been designed to offer collaborative opportunities regarding education and practise to Darlington YOS and Durham University, support the sharing of information-including up to date legislation, practise based knowledge/skills and research opportunities. My intentions are also to provide the opportunity for Darlington YOS staff and Durham University staff/students to develop and deliver Master Classes based on current practise and legislation/specific areas of interest.

This Collaborative arrangement is unique to Darlington YOS and Durham University and has proven thus far to be extremely beneficial for both parties. Continued partnership work is planned throughout 2015 with further development opportunities with Durham Prison being considered as a tripartite arrangement.

In 2014, I developed a system, an electronic in house arrangement named ‘The Definitive Intervention System’. The aim being to introduce a more user friendly, fresher system to support how staff work with young people. The database was created to organise what was a slightly disjointed and individual officer driven system of working, in which a young person would receive different sets of interventions based not on their offending needs, but on the officer assigned to the case.

The database and electronic materials are accessible to all staff at the yos and a selection of group programmes have been developed based on local need along with the development of in house interventions.

The intervention system is regularly updated by the service programme co-ordinator whenever a new resource is bought, made or revised. New interventions are picked or created predominantly based on gaps in service delivery. The benefits of this system have been demonstrated to other services and it has been praised for its innovation and practical benefits. The system was shortlisted in 2014 by the Howard League for Penal Reform for its distinctive role within the sector.

In conclusion, my work and the work of the youth offending service is to better the lives of young people, and those around them.

Hayley was a prolific offender and at the age of 15 years, she committed a particularly serious offence which landed her in prison for a lengthy period of time. I was her YOS Officer at this time. I visited Hayley without fail every month, travelling by train, supporting Hayley’s mother throughout this difficult period of time in their lives. It is now 14 years since Hayley came out of custody, she is married with one little boy and one child on the way. She has not committed any further offences and works part time for a crime reduction charity. I still have a poem simply entitled “Jo”, which Hayley wrote for me on her release from custody

“You were my YOS Officer and a good one indeed. You were always there for me when I was in need, if it wasn’t for you, I would be locked up for worse, I would have probably killed someone over a purse, You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me….”

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