Lucy (not her real name) looks far too young to be an offender, let alone an arsonist.
She was only 12 when she and three friends were arrested at the scene of a fire, handcuffed and taken to Luton police station where they were finger-printed and put in separate cells.
She says: “I really thought I was going to prison. I thought all my dreams of being a PE teacher were over.
“I tried to tell the policeman we hadn’t meant to do it but he just said ‘Shut up, you little brat.’
“When my mum came, I was crying and she was crying too but she was also really cross.”
Lucy explains what happened that day: “We were larking about. We’d bought a lighter and lit a tissue.
“We thought we’d put it out and I went home to get my dinner. But I turned round and saw smoke pouring out.
“I felt really, really scared and really, really guilty.
“I went back and the police were there. My fingers were all black and they arrested me.”
Lucy was lucky – she was referred to the prevention team at Luton Youth Offending Service.
They take youngsters out of the criminal justice system and work with them to improve outcomes.
Restorative Justice co-ordinator Chloe Randall says: “Young people make mistakes and get into trouble, but it’s not always planned.
“We work with them to accept responsibilty for what they’ve done . . . so they can understand what it feels like to be a victim.”
Lucy has apologised to the council and the fire service for wasting their time. She’s changed school – and friends – and hopes no-one ever finds out what happened.
Her over-riding emotions are of embarrassment and regret. “Next time I’ll listen to my mum,” she says.
AFTER being robbed of his phone and then threatened with a knife several months later, 18-year-old Peter (not his real name) was terrified of going out, convinced he’d be attacked again.
“I really struggled,” he recalls. “I also wondered what it was about me that meant I’d been singled out twice.”
He was contacted by Luton YOS some time later and asked how he’d feel about meeting the perpetrator, who was in a detention centre in Bristol.
He agreed and was given counselling before the visit. “I was well prepared and supported and that gave me confidence,” he says. “When I met the offender he was calm and apologetic and obviously regretted what he’d done.
“I asked ‘Why me?’ And he said it was because I was on my own and he thought I had something of value which he could sell to buy something he wanted.
“I also discussed an action plan with the YOS team. We agreed that if I saw him again, we’d acknowledge each other but keep walking.” Peter admits he’s much more cautious now: “I still have a small amount of anxiety but feel I can manage it.”
This is Restorative Justice awareness week and Luton Youth Offending Service is justifiably proud of its record and recently awarded Quality Mark in Restorative Justice.
Between 2010 and 2014, it reduced the number of young people entering the youth justice system for the first time by 72 percent – thanks to a combination of national and local policy and substantial investment in early intervention within the YOS.
Service manager Liz King said: “We try to bring people involved in crime, antisocial behaviour and conflict together, enabling everyone involved in a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.” This is in direct opposition to the historical approach which asked: What happened? Who is to blame? What is the appropriate punishment?
It also enables some young offenders like Lucy to avoid having a criminal record.
The percentage of Luton youngsters aged between 10 and 17 with a formal youth justice conviction, including cautions, is 0.8.
The average age of those seen by YOS is 15.5 years old, of whom 84 percent are male. Cases range from arson, criminal damage and burglary to drugs, fraud and sexual offences.
Liz said: “We work with families and schools and make individual assessments but obviously the victim is at the forefront of what we do.”