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Blog: sport could hold key to reducing reoffending

In a blog for the Alliance of Sport, Criminal Defence Barrister Joe Tarbert offers a personal view on how sport could be embedded into the legal system to help reduce reoffending.

My day-to-day experience of defending people in court throws up many frustrations. I see the conveyor belt of the same faces pass inefficiently through the system and few effective methods utilised to stop this damaging and expensive cycle of offending and reoffending.

I see youths and adults alike served with community-based penalties such as litter picking, working in a charity shop or curfews; mild deterrents viewed by the defendants as a chore to grin, bear and get through.

Some attempts are made at more rehabilitative sentences through interventions by Youth Offending Teams or National Probation Services, such as gang or knife awareness courses. These have their merits, but some of these young people or adults hardly need be made more ‘aware’ of issues that feature all too heavily in their lives.

It has become very clear to me that whole-hearted focus should be placed on meaningful rehabilitation and I believe sport should be at the heart of that process.

Having a passion for sport myself (particularly football, American football and boxing), I’m always struck by the number of professional athletes who have been saved from taking the ‘wrong path’ in life by being engaged in, and dedicated to, sport.

It’s not a great leap to suggest that sport could have a similar effect on individuals if embedded into the court system as a rehabilitative, community-based penalty.

My idea is that a youth or adult convicted of a crime could be issued with a formal requirement to engage with a number of sessions at a local sports club or programme.

Engaging defendants in positive, safe and productive team-based activity (to which they otherwise may not have had access) not only improves physical and mental wellbeing, but offers the solid familial support that many lack and may have previously sought by belonging to a gang.

There are barriers to this idea, of course, but none of them insurmountable: the work required to establish a network of local sport provision in each area, the necessary buy-in from Youth Offending Teams and National Probation Services to ensure it’s properly supervised, overcoming the fear of risk within the Crown Prosecution Service about putting offenders in these community settings, and the perception from some that it’s a ‘light touch’ and not sufficiently punitive.

But from my perspective working within the system, I am convinced it’s time to change the narrative and focus on rehabilitation. Sport has so much to offer and its immense value within criminal justice is not currently being utilised to anywhere near its potential.

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