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Radical village' plan for criminals

PUBLISHED: 16:05 14 July 2010 | UPDATED: 11:49 23 August 2010

A PENAL reform campaigner is pioneering a radical £48 million scheme where prisoners jailed for less than a year are housed and educated in a dedicated village community. Bobby Cummines, chief executive of UNLOCK, a charity which helps ex-offenders in

A PENAL reform campaigner is pioneering a radical £48 million scheme where prisoners jailed for less than a year are housed and educated in a dedicated 'village' community.

Bobby Cummines, chief executive of UNLOCK, a charity which helps ex-offenders in north Kent and south east London, has worked on the 'Diamond Project' for six years.

Yesterday (Wednesday) he was due to hold talks with recently appointed Justice Secretary Ken Clarke over proposals for the scheme as the government look to ways to revolutionise the criminal justice system.

The long standing and influential Tory politician says it costs up to £38,000 a year to keep a prisoner, more than sending a child to Eton. He made the comments after calling for a 'Rehabilitation Revolution'.

His meeting comes after recent research conducted in north Kent showed shocking reconviction rates for those serving less than six months, Statistics show a huge 61 per cent are back in front of a court within a year of release. This compares with 37 per cent who are given community sentences,

Inside today Mr Cummines, who served decades in Maidstone Prison for violent crime, writes exclusively for the Times to give a unique insight in to his plan, which he wants to pilot in north Kent or south east London, and the criminal justice system.

He said: "Prison is not working, reconviction rates are too high and the prison population is at breaking point

"This meeting shows the government are willing to listen to new ways of rehabilitating offenders. Locking them up is not good enough anymore. We are turning petty criminals in to hardened convicts with no future, who end up a burden on the taxpayer."

Mr Clarke is a staunch supporter of reforming the outdated prison system system, pointing to the large cost of the rising prison population that hit a record high of 85, 201 in England and Wales in May.

Mr Cummines hopes to create a community featuring all the criminal justice system services, including a police station, in a controlled compound. He claims he has private financial backing for the entire project already in place but needs to locate a 28 acre site to progress.

Inside shops, a café, hairdressers and places for families to stay would add to the community where offenders could learn a trade.

He says when families are split up while offenders are imprisoned the experience cementing a mindset in the offender, exacerbated by relationships they develop behind bars.

Mr Cummines added: "They go in having nicked a car and come out knowing how to make drugs and get a gun. What good is that for society."

The ground-breaking meeting comes after the Home Office revealed shocking re-conviction rates in north Kent after commissioning research in to those given short custodial sentences.

Mr Clarke is supported by Kent Probation Chief Executive Helen West in looking at ways to change the way criminals are treated.

"A Community Order can combine punishment with rehabilitation which is proven to be more effective than a short-term prison sentence."

More than 400 offenders in Dartford and Gravesend were given Community Orders last year. Examples include drug rehabilitation, alcohol treatment, unpaid work and supervision by a probation officer or curfew with an electronic tag.

Kenneth Clarke MP was scathed for being honest when he said that short-term prison sentences were not having the desired results in rehabilitating offenders, pointing out they were very costly to the taxpayer and not reducing crime, writes Bobby Cummines.

My heart leapt with joy. Here was a politician brave enough not only to be honest but to talk about reducing prisoner numbers and getting low tariff offenders out of prison to serve their sentences within the community. I've long been waiting for a politician with a backbone who is willing to think '21st Century'.

Government hasn't historically been brave enough to ask for advice from those with practical experience and knowledge of the criminal justice system. Ok, maybe the odd MP who grew up privileged but did a bit of bird, but what about people who grew up in the gang culture on our streets? Personally, I served 13 years in prison for serious offences including bank robbery but I started my criminal career as a low tariff offender when I was still a child. My criminal career started in detention centres and ended in maximum security prisons, so I am talking from experience, not from theory. I always smile when I watch television and see these so-called experts on crime and youth offending. How would you react if someone read a book about some people 'like' you, then tried to tell you about your life?

Of course, there's a place for academics in understanding crime but what Ken was saying was really just common sense; reduce the prison population by emptying out of it the 'pests' of society, saving those prison beds for the dangerous in our society. As prison staff move from being just 'turn-keys' and 'big boys baby minders' towards delivering a professional service that will rehabilitate the offender in their care and protect members of the public, their efforts are being hampered by the sheer numbers they have to deal with.

Kenneth Clarke has seen this and wants to deal with this problem in sensible way that is cost effective. I totally support him in that. But what do we do with those in our society that commit low tariff crime, such as vandalism, stealing car radios and the like? If we just put them on a tag, we know where they are at a certain time, but it does not stop them re-offending. We need to deal with the causes of crime and not just the effects of crime but no other government has been brave enough to deal with that. The 'system' did many things to try to change me, but ultimately it was education that was my liberation. It's easy to lock someone up and leave the next government to deal with the extra victims and soaring costs. Now we have a coalition government who seem prepared to deal with what others have shied away from.

Their approach fits well with my own vision, the Diamond Project, a genuine community solution based on experience. Twenty-eight acres of land that benefits not only those who have committed offences but also the long term unemployed. It will train them in trades and deal with social problems such as drug addiction, alcohol abuse, anti-social behaviour and mental health. Diamond Projects can include community police stations, social services, probation services, drug action teams, mental health professionals, Job Centres, housing advisers, dentist and GPs. Alongside this, the community will benefit from leisure facilities such as swimming pools, tennis courts, football pitches, plus restaurants, shops and banks. Diamond Projects are mini villages created for the community by the community. They are also run by the community, creating jobs. This week I shall be meeting with the government to try to make this vision a reality, and I am sure with a coalition with vision it will happen. David Cameron said its time for change and he is right. We need to think 21st Century.

Bobby Cummines

Chief EXECUTIVE of UNLOCK

WHAT DO YOUT THINK?

E-mail michael.adkins@archant.co.uk

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