10 Jul Why train young offenders? Because it can improve their lives
It often feels as though politics rewards the wrong things: headlines rather than hard work. And that the slog of trawling through evidence to work out what really turns people’s lives around is often wasted.
That’s how I felt last week when it was reported that members of the cabinet had rejected a proposal to teach young offenders martial arts and boxing – a decision that would fly in the face of the evidence and was symptomatic of our culture of government by cowardice.
Of course, it makes for a good tabloid headline. After all, why would we want to train young criminals how to fight? Isn’t it asking for trouble?
But this knee-jerk reaction ignores the reality that is clear from a visit to any martial arts or amateur boxing club. The ethos is about developing balanced individuals. Self-control, self-discipline and respect for others are key, and all are important when it comes to resisting the appeal of gangs and turning people into good citizens, not violent thugs.
I am proud to promote a policy that helps turn around the lives of troubled young people and break the cycle of violence.
Plenty of studies show that martial arts and boxing, if these are carefully taught, are excellent ways to end criminality, not aid it. One of the most compelling stories is that of the young man who, in 2011, was found guilty of intending to sell drugs. A year later he was the super heavyweight Olympic gold medallist and now he is the heavyweight boxing champion. That young man, Anthony Joshua, is a hero to thousands and a true role model. Boxing did not turn him into a dangerous thug; it made him a better person.
Anthony Joshua, world heavyweight boxing champion. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters
The same is true of sport generally. It provides much-needed physical activity and teaches participants a set of values including teamwork, self-discipline, respect, the drive to push yourself to your limits, pursue excellence and strive to become better. In custody, physical activity can help lower levels of antisocial behaviour and violence. Outside prison, it becomes an alternative to a life of crime. That is why this proposal was part of a much wider strategy I had developed to harness the power of sport in our criminal justice system, with the help of a forthcoming report by Professor Rosie Meek.
Her far-reaching recommendations and practical proposals establish a framework for our prisons to make sport a key part of the youth justice system, empowering staff, sports clubs and community providers, and helping young people on both sides of the prison gate to transform their lives and become positive members of the community.
In the midst of a World Cup in which excitement over England’s prospects has hit fever pitch, it is a statement of the obvious to say that sporting heroes inspire us. One of my own sporting heroes may come as a surprise: it is Iron Man athlete John McAvoy– a man who used sport to turn around his life after a decade in prison. He broke the world indoor rowing record with the help of his prison officer and since his release has not looked back, becoming one of the world’s best triathletes. McAvoy’s incredible story demonstrates the potential of sport to transform lives.
There are many more examples of how sport can be a force for good. Take reoffending rates, for example. On average, 69% of young offenders reoffendwithin a year of leaving custody. But only 6% of those who go through Chelsea football club and rugby academies at Portland prison and young offender institution reoffend, and only 15% of those who go through Saracens rugby club’s programme at Feltham young offenders’ institution.
Building on examples like these, Meek’s recommendations give prison governors a blueprint to build on their current sporting provision and help more young people. We hope there will be many more John McAvoys. Not necessarily international athletes but people who use sport to change, and end their negative association with the justice system.
It is not just our criminal justice system that needs an injection of sporting values. We need them in our political system, too.
Just look at how Brexit policy has been pushed about by empty threats and a weak determination to implement the “will of the people”, regardless of the first duty of any government to do what is best for our country. Senior ministers are allowed to miss important votes and score points off each other, rather than standing up for what’s right. It is no wonder that people think there is no integrity in politics. We need to end this culture of governance by cowardice.
For that reason, I will continue to promote the power of sport and sporting values in our society. I want to end policymaking through cheap headlines and dogma rather than integrity, evidence and courage.
Originally published on The Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/07/young-offenders-boxing-martial-arts-fight-sport?CMP=twt_gu