Bradford-born Jason Brown was convicted and imprisoned for four years for robbery after a life of petty crime in his youth.
Today he has two degrees, including one in criminology, and is currently studying for a masters at Leeds Beckett University. He also works for charity User Voice in West Yorkshire which he credits with helping him find a new and fulfilling role in society.
User Voice was founded in 2009 by Mark Johnson, an ex-offender and former drug abuser. Mark’s story embodies the transformative change which User Voice strives to achieve. Mark’s direct contact with the criminal justice system, and later as an employer of ex-offenders and consultant for government and other charities, left him convinced of the urgent need to create a model of offender engagement that is fair for all involved.
One key area of User Voice’s work is Service User Councils. These offer a structured forum where offenders can come together to discuss how to make improvements to probation and give them a voice in their rehabilitation.
Jason says: “User Voice’s work is led and delivered by ex-offenders like me who try to consistently foster a dialogue between offenders and providers of services within the criminal justice system.
“For many reasons probation was not working for me but when I attended my first Service User Council meeting it became clear that people were listening to what I was saying, understood where I was coming from and giving me the belief that I could achieve the things that I wanted to.
“I could have relapsed into a life of crime, hanging out with my old mates with the same temptations but User Voice planted the seed and I kept the faith. I now work with a team of ex-offenders who help offenders turn their life around.
He says working with User Voice and being engaged in the Service User Councils helped him enter into voluntary work and later encouraged him to go back into education. “I feel I’ve achieved more in the last six years than I did in the previous 20 years,” he says.
West Yorkshire Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) has recently begun working in partnership with User Voice, to support offenders as they progress through the criminal justice system.
Karen Townend, community director at West Yorkshire CRC said: “Key to User Voice’s work are Service User Councils. These offer a structured forum where offenders and West Yorkshire CRC staff can come together to discuss how to make improvements to probation and give service users a voice.”
Jason says offenders and those on probation want to be heard and they also want to stop re-offending but after of a life of crime breaking that habit is difficult. “That’s where we come in,” says Jason. “As ex-offenders we understand where they have been because we’ve been there ourselves and we are living proof that you can live your life in another way – a more positive way.”
There’s nothing an offender can throw at him that he hasn’t heard or said himself before, and Jason says this is why there is nobody better placed to help offenders get their lives back on track.
“The reason I do this is because I’ve been there myself,” he says. “Probation workers and social workers can all help, but prisoners don’t realise it is possible to change until they meet somebody who has.
“I encourage them to set goals that are achievable – not what am I going to do in five years but what am I going to do today.
“We try to break down the “us and them” mentality which can exist between the service user and the probation service because that doesn’t help anyone. And it doesn’t work for everyone but I know if I can get one prisoner to volunteer to do charity work they will be on the right trajectory.”
The Councils are groups of people who are, or have been on probation or licence. They engage with other people who report to probation offices about issues to do with their rehabilitation. Following the engagement work, proposals are developed which are aimed at resolving any common issues which can lead to re-offending.