BREAKING THE cycle of crime is one of the biggest challenges facing the UK’s criminal justice system.
Few people know this better than Steve Freer and Val Wawrosz, two retired prison officers who run the Leeds-based charity Tempus Novo.
Together they have more than 50 years’ experience of working with offenders and now they are using it to run a rehabilitation programme that is winning praise from employers, judges and the families of those it has helped.
Steve, 52, said: “Most of them can’t survive on benefits so if there isn’t an income they do what they always do – crime.
“Getting ex-offenders into jobs normally is bordering on impossible. We’ll probably be one of the most successful organisations in the country doing it.”
In the past 18 months, the charity has taken 127 offenders onto its programme, secured job interviews for 58 and got 51 into work.
The reoffending rate of those helped by the charity – many of whom were prolific offenders – is just 4.1 per cent. Compare that to the national average of 45 per cent and it is easy to see why people are starting to sit up and take notice.
Former Cabinet minister and ex-offender Jonathan Aitken is president of Tempus Novo, and Comic Relief co-founder Lenny Henry is another supporter.
During a recent event to mark its first 18 months, the charity brought together people who have taken part in the programme, their families and those working in the criminal justice system.
Steve said: “For me, the most significant thing that night was a guy who we’d been locking up. His son came over and thanked us for what we’ve done for his dad.
Getting ex-offenders into jobs normally is bordering on impossible.Steve Freer, Tempus Novo co-founder
“We know what it takes for guys who’ve been involved in crime to desist. It’s a hell of a long progress for a lot of them, especially if they’ve been involved in drugs or crime.”
The charity is based in offices on the HMP Leeds site but is independent of the prison itself.
It works primarily with male offenders who have served sentences at prisons in West Yorkshire, helping to them to secure interviews with employers who support the programme.
Val, 60, said: “One of the main things we ask them to do is right us a letter saying how and why they got involved in crime, the circumstances surrounding that, why they want to come away from that and why we should help them.
“These letters are absolutely heartbreaking.”
People are referred to the programme by police, probation, drugs workers, prison officers – but it is up to the offenders themselves to make contact once they are released.
“We don’t want anybody who’s been forced to get in touch,” said Val. “They’ve got to have ID, a CV of some sort and a bank account. It’s little tests for them. If they desperately want it, they will do these things.
The next stage is coming to a Tempus Novo interview. It’s another test - some of them don’t even turn up.”
But many of those who take that first step have gone on to turn their lives around.
Steve said: “Trust, transparency, honesty – they are not words you would associate with criminals but we instil them from day one.”
The majority of those who secured work have stayed in their jobs, with a retention rate of 69 per cent.
One participant said: “You will never know how much you have helped me to change my life and the positive impact a job has had on me. I know have self respect, a purpose in life.”
Another said: “A year on, I’m still and work and finally my life is coming together. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be given another chance at life.”