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Mike Barton interview: 'I'm no liberal, but the police should stop locking up so many criminals'

"But then when I started locking up the sons and grandsons of the first burglars I had put away, I started to think this is a fool’s errand. 

"All we are doing is regurgitating the same families to inflict further pain on future generations of victims. Well, that isn’t want [Sir Robert] Peel wanted us to do.”

Mr Barton believes passionately that the police’s principle job is not to catch criminals, but to stop them committing crime in the first place.

“I suppose you can punish people if you want, but really what we are here for is to prevent reoffending.

“In the immediate aftermath of something bad happening to you, you want a bit of Old Testament eye for an eye. But after a while, what you really want is to find a way of preventing it happening again.”

In order to try and achieve this, Durham Police has pioneered a scheme that offers certain categories of criminals, including burglars and violent offenders, the opportunity to avoid prosecution.

By enrolling on the four month Checkpoint programme, the clients - as Mr Barton insists they must be called - work with professionals in an attempt to stay on the straight and narrow.

"We don’t charge a lot of people now. You have got to catch them not charge them. They have got to fear getting caught and once you have caught them you have got to stop them reoffending. 

"We now divert people, but if you look at the detection rate for burglary we are better than any other force.”

Mr Barton, who began his policing career engaging in “rough and tumble” with drunks on Blackpool promenade in 1980, insists that far from being controversial, the approach is supported by the public in Durham, even those who have been victims of crime.

"When we have done all our surveys of victims in this force area they all say that the one thing they want is that that person should not commit any more crimes.

"They don’t want them punishing, they don’t want their fingernails pulling out, or for them to go to prison for a long, long time, what they want is for that person to not do it to someone else.

“The public are remarkably wise if you ask them. If you ask the mob, if you rabble rouse, then don't be surprised if the rabble act like a rabble, but if you ask them in a very cogent and measured way they will give you a cogent measured answer.”

Mr Barton also believes that in straitened times, jailing people for short spells makes no financial sense. 

“If we send someone to prison for six months how does that help the economy? It costs more to send someone to prison that it does to send them to Eton. 

“If they are in a job they are likely to lose it. You dislocate the family, sending someone to prison for short term sentences is really problematic.”

More than 2,000 people have taken part in the Checkpoint programme and according to the latest analysis, those who successfully complete it are 20 per cent less likely to reoffend.

Around five per cent of participants fail the course and are immediately prosecuted for the original offence and sentenced accordingly.

Another initiative taking place in Durham, is a scheme aimed at getting violent drunks to change their ways by shaming them with the reality of their actions.

"What we do is show them the video of them being arrested and what we found in a study, when we first did it, was that 100 per cent of the offenders who were shown their arrest video in the checkpoint programme immediately asked to apologise to the [arresting] officer.”

While his radical approach to policing, as well as his controversial views on overhauling the country’s drugs laws, have not always been popular, few can argue that it has not been effective.

During his seven years in charge, Mr Barton has transformed Durham into the country's best performing force, according to Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

Despite being one of the country’s smallest force areas,  Mr Barton says Durham has its own problems, and insists other Chief Constables can learn from his approach.

“We used to mine coal, make steel and build ships, we now sell heroin. We [the police] have certainly got our challenges because the miners’ strike is still raw in some communities, but over the last 10 or so years we have seen significant improvements in public confidence.

“You can certainly track that to the fact that we pick the phone up on time, we go to jobs and we try to resolve people’s problems. 

“We actually attend between 80 and 85 per cent of jobs whereas there are some forces that feel they can only attend between 25 and 30 per cent.  If you continually only go to 30 per cent of jobs then public confidence is going to ebb.

“I believe this model should be national but I am not going to impose it on anyone. What I see now when I look at a lot of chiefs is that they are beleaguered. I do think austerity has been a major challenge.”

Mr Barton, who officially retired last week - receiving a CBE for services to policing on the same day - has handed over the baton to his deputy, Jo Farrell, who is keen to continue his innovative approach to policing in the region.

Despite being 62 (with the knees of a 75-year-old), Mr Barton insists he is retiring while still at his “peak”.

And while claiming his new focus will be on the “greenhouse and the grandchildren”, has already agreed to get involved with a number of restorative justice and drug reform programmes, that he hopes will help shape the future of policing.

“I agreed to take on something else last week and my wife said, ‘great, so you will be down to just eight days a week now you have retired’.”

For a police officer who has advocated the legalisation of cannabis, supports giving heroin to addicts  and believes criminals need to be helped rather than punished, Mike Barton - the outgoing Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary - is adamant he is not soft.

"I don’t want anyone to think I am a trendy, pinko liberal,” he says earnestly. “I’m a straight forward, Northern bloke.”

As if to illustrate the point, he describes his initial reaction when he and his wife were recently burgled. 

“I was all for a bit of Old Testament retribution. My definition of restorative justice would have been every toenail pulled out one by one,” he confesses.

But if four decades in policing have taught him anything, it is that justice needs to be about more than just revenge.

In his last interview before retiring from the force, Mr Barton urges the police to stop sending so many criminals to prison and start working with them in order to break the never ending cycle of reoffending.

"When I started in policing 39-years ago, I had a much more simplistic view," he admits. "They're villains, we are going to lock them up. We are going to put them before the courts, they are going to go to prison, job done.

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