Pulling gang members back from the brink

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Postcode gang wars have become a disturbing feature of the lives of many young people in London.

In the wake of the 2011 riots, a Home Office team has been conducting a review of what works best across London's 18 gang hotspot boroughs to stem the violence.

Over the past decade, both victims and perpetrators have become steadily younger.

Among them is Kenny Imafadon, who was on remand for murder until Christmas 2011.

The judge in Kenny Imafadon's trial ruled he should be acquitted and he was released - but not before having taken a long hard look at the mess his life was in.

Two of his friends were sentenced to 26 and 30 years respectively.

Start Quote

What isn't working is taking young people and putting them in what are effectively jails - and just leaving them there to stew”

End Quote Professor John Pitts

He said: "That really changed my outlook on life - that could easily have been me.

"I'd had more than enough time thinking in Feltham [Young Offender's Institution] to be honest and that helped me reassess my life."

Southwark Council's gang intervention team relocated him away from south London and commissioned him to write a report on the reasons young people like him get involved with gangs.

It was the start of his rehabilitation.

The Kenny Report is an unusual diversion tactic, but it secured a scholarship for him to pursue an undergraduate degree in law at a London university.

Professor John Pitts, who is supporting Kenny's reintegration into non-gang life, says the review recognises there needs to be a shift away from a focus on enforcement.

It is increasingly seen as a blunt instrument for all but the most dangerous individuals.

'Intervening early'

Professor Pitts said: "What isn't working is taking young people and putting them in what are effectively jails - and just leaving them there to stew.

"We don't have enough people and projects who are intervening early."

The fear many victims or bystanders experience means community groups believe that a lot of the violence is under-reported.

Professor John Pitts Professor John Pitts says there needs to be a move away from enforcement

So although official statistics suggest a deep in crime levels this masks an underlying problem of a steady increase in the use of violence.

The year-long review has confirmed this impression across most of the worst affected boroughs.

It has also challenged the practice of using early introduction into the criminal justice system as an effective deterrent.

Using the work spearheaded by among others Southwark Council's Gang Intervention Unit, practice is moving in the direction of early diversion of those young people on the periphery of gang life.

Southwark has gone a step further and now voluntarily moves gang members who want to ditch the gang lifestyle away from their home turf.

Jonathon Toy, of Southwark Council, said: "We do know what the answers are.

"If you do home visits and you link people into services and provide mentoring you can move people on.

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We've got a long way to go”

End Quote Charlie Alcock Clinical psychologist

"We can make a massive difference - it's an issue for everybody."

Some unexpected revelations have also come from the review.

Charlie Alcock is a clinical psychologist who used to work in the NHS.

She has fought a lone battle to introduce a practice she calls street therapy.

The review has placed a greater emphasis on using this type of experience to produce a more joined up approach from different services to tackle the escalating gang problem.

Ms Alcock said: "We've recognised this is a mental health need and needs to be treated as such.

"But we've got a long way to go."

It is not a question of doing away with enforcement - dangerous people still end up in jail.

Funding continued

But exit from prison is also an important point of intervention.

The Home Office has decided that the review has led to a greater understanding of what works and street level - and how gang intervention work can only be improved by making sure different departments all speak from the same page to extricate gang members from criminal behaviours.

Although the programme was due to have its funding stopped last week, it is now going to run until 2014.

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