A NORTH-EAST youth offenders service has won a prestigious national award for its efforts to help young people avoid the criminal system by making them take responsibility for their actions.

The Darlington Youth Offending Service (YOS) works in partnership with Durham Police to steer first time offenders away from the court system by using restorative justice, where the young person is made to face up to what they have done and make amends.

Darlington YOS, the third smallest in the country, beat off competition from much larger organisations to be awarded the first National Restorative Justice Award by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Praising the Darlington scheme, the chairman of the Howard League panel said: “By using a restorative approach it is known that young people gain a much greater understanding of the harm and damage they have caused and a high proportion feel ashamed of their actions when the impact is acknowledged.”

Since restorative justice was introduced to Darlington in 2008, the number of first time youth offenders entering the court system in the town has dropped by 81 per cent, from 311 to 60 in 2012/13.

Joanne Benson, head of the YOS, said: “As a service we have two aims – welfare and justice. It’s about making sure the right young people are diverted away from the court arena, early intervention is key.

“Prison does not work for young people in Darlington, there are very high reoffending rates. We take a holistic approach with the families and so on. If they don’t engage then they will go through the courts.”

Chief Superintendent Graham Hall, of Darlington Police, said: “This prestigious award reflects the excellent contribution the team has made in relation to restorative approaches which provide significant benefits to victims, offenders and the wider community.

Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington Borough Council, also praised the work of Darlington YOS and added: “For Darlington, one of the smallest YOS teams in the county, to win this award is an exceptional achievement.

“The great work carried out by the service to support young people and victims has now been recognised nationally.”