The power of volunteers in reducing reoffending
The UK has a long cultural history of volunteering and, according to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), we have one of the highest volunteering rates in the world.
Volunteering is traceable in Britain at least back to medieval times, when there was a strong association between religion and ministration to the poor and sick. Estimates suggest that no fewer than 500 voluntary hospitals were established in England during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Probation itself was started by volunteers. In 1876, the Church of England Temperance Society (CETS) appointed two "missionaries" to Southwark court with the initial aim of "reclaiming drunkards". This forms the basis of the London Police Courts Mission (LPCM), whose missionaries worked with magistrates to develop a system of releasing offenders, on the condition that they kept in touch with the missionary and accepted guidance.
There are many reasons why people volunteer – meeting and making friends, keeping existing skills alive and learning new ones, improving employment prospects through an enhanced CV, gaining confidence and improving self-esteem and just to feel good about themselves. Research also suggests that people may enjoy distinctly better physical and mental health when they volunteer.
Volunteers have given their time and expertise to probation for some years. They support service users with important tasks they may find difficult, due to low literacy or mental health issues for example. Sometimes, due to their own status as offenders or ex-offenders, they may find dealing with those in positions of authority embarrassing or challenging. Such tasks may include registering with a GP, an essential first step if someone is to get professional support for any physical or mental health issues.
Inadequate or unsafe accommodation, lack of employment, low self-esteem, poor literacy and numeracy skills and dysfunctional family backgrounds can all be underlying reasons that lead people to commit criminal acts, such as getting involved in drugs or stealing.
Through the process of rehabilitation we aim to work with service users, so they can tackle and overcome these type of underlying social, emotional, health and practical problems.
Volunteers provide a vital link in the support chain, by not only providing practical support - filling out forms, researching job opportunities, accessing financial and budgeting advice - but also by being there to listen to the service user and acting as a critical friend.
Going one step further, we have volunteer Peer Mentors who are ex-service users. Due to their personal experience of the Criminal Justice System, including probation, they have a very well informed perspective from which they work with current service users. They have been there, done that and come out the other side, so who better to provide the effective support to others on the same path? Like all our volunteers, Peer Mentors receive training, which again adds to their own skills and increases their prospects for future employment.
Comments from Peer Mentors, all ex-service users, attest to the value of this work:
- Being a volunteer will help me build confidence and provide me with a platform to move forward.
- I’m hoping to be able to help people and to build my experience while being reminded where I’ve journeyed from.
- Volunteering will help me with my social skills, time keeping and reliability.
- I have a lot to give from my past experiences and can help to get service users on the right path, because of my past experiences.
With support not only from probation staff but also volunteers, service users learn valuable life skills, that most people may take for granted. Through this work and learning, there is a greater chance service users will become better equipped to make different choices from those they have made in the past, and successfully break the cycle of reoffending.