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Towards a justice system that addresses the needs of vulnerable victims and offenders

People who offend are often some of the most vulnerable in society, experiencing a range of issues from homelessness and abuse to mental illness, addiction and communication difficulties. These are individuals who may have killed their abuser, victims of human trafficking compelled to commit criminal offences, and children over the age of 10 who engage in criminal behaviour. Despite their often multiple needs, vulnerable offenders are frequently overlooked by the justice system and consequently go on to reoffend.   

Vulnerability within the justice system is an under-researched area of criminal law that needs attention. Making an impact in this area of research are Professors Ray Arthur and Tony Ward, and Associate Professors Dr Nicola Wake and Charlotte Emmett at Northumbria University, who take a holistic approach to vulnerability by addressing the needs of both vulnerable victims and offenders.

Their research is extensive and impactful, with their latest studies focusing on rehabilitation programmes for young offenders, reforming criminal law defences, and training for police officers working in human trafficking. This work is making an important impact on the lives of vulnerable offenders and victims and those involved in their rehabilitation. It has also been cited by the Insanity and Automatism – Law Commission, which is particularly important in terms of feeding into potential law reforms. The project is far-reaching, and has attracted prestigious Leverhulme Trust funding to host world-leading Professor Warren Brookbanks (Auckland University of Technology) at the University to engage in further research on mental condition defences.

One of their recent projects centres on providing rehabilitation sessions to young people detained at a secure children’s home in the North East. The sessions encourage participants to use creative arts such as storytelling, creative writing, music and dance to express their emotions. It is intended that the study will improve young offenders’ communication skills, increase their engagement with education and employment skills, raise their aspirations and lead to a reduction in reoffending and anti-social behaviour.

Another project provides training to senior police officers in the North East on Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. This work is expected to support future investigations and training of other officers dealing with human trafficking, as well as contribute to the development of current practices. This is particularly important because outside of London, the North-East of England has the highest rates of human trafficking in the UK.

Charlotte Emmett has also been keen to make a difference in the assessment of mental capacity. It is hoped that through the development of an independent mobile app (COMPASS – COMPetency ASSessment) they will standardise mental capacity assessments. This will be a step-change in the method of assessment from a current non-standardised qualitative interview to a brief set of cognitive tests specifically assessing each of the four areas of the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

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