Getting my mugger to explain why

Tom Symonds

BBC home affairs correspondent Tom Symonds was mugged at knifepoint last year and the perpetrator is now serving a four-year sentence. Tom went to meet him as part of a restorative justice programme, which aims to cut reoffending by confronting criminals with the consequences of their actions.

Everyone wants to see less crime on Britain's streets, but it is not often we get an opportunity to take part in the fight, in person. Arriving at Littlehey Prison near Huntingdon, it felt to me like it was worth a try.

One dark night in March 2012, I was walking home after a long day at work when a stocky young man with a hood, mask, and knife came from behind me and demanded my phone and wallet.

I did the right thing, handing them over, and he was off, leaving me shaken and unhurt. His final words were, "Don't call the police. I've got a mate watching you".

It wasn't true of course, and when the police arrived, a fast-moving sequence of events led to my mugger's arrest. He was tracked down using the Find My iPhone app and caught after a fleet-of-foot police officer chased him through a north London housing estate.

Eighteen months later, we are to meet again. Working my way through the patdown and dog search necessary to go behind bars, I ponder my role as The Victim.

Because the mugger kept the knife at his side, and was caught, I don't feel particularly victimised. I've had no nightmares, and the main effect of being mugged has been a constant urge to look behind me when walking down dark London streets.

That's not going away. But I was lucky - those who are more traumatised may benefit from conquering their fear of an offender, or just letting rip at someone who has done them wrong.

Tony Walker, from Restorative Solutions, is facilitating the meeting on behalf of Why me?, a charity promoting restorative justice. He tells me of one elderly victim of crime who is too terrified to open her door, even to him. But meeting her offender made a difference.

"She took one look at him in prison," he says, "and she realised 'is that it? Is that what I've been worried about'?"

I wasn't exactly looking forward to trekking to a Cambridgeshire prison on a sunny day. I felt the mugger would get more out of this than me, and many victims may ask what's in it for them.

But then I realised that I genuinely wanted to make this guy change his ways. Rethink his life. I feel like a bit of a do-gooder, but I confess it would make me feel good to persuade him out of future crime.

We come face to face in a small room containing comfy chairs and a box of tissues.

He is wearing jeans, a short-sleeve shirt, trainers - and a look of terror. I try to reassure him that I'm not going to get angry. He relaxes.

Restorative Justice works like this. We all describe the events of that night - offender first. Then we all say what effect it had on us, and finally, what we want to happen next.

It is a good system because it focuses on the consequences a crime can have - the way in which the decision to commit an offence can be the start of a long chain of damage.

In his case, what he did has affected me of course, and to a degree my wife and children. But most damaged are his parents.

His mum and dad are in the room. She seems quietly angry. He, over the next hour or so, demonstrates his horror at his son's actions, in several long monologues.

My mugger tells me he was on his way home from a party and decided to rob the first person he saw that night.

"Why?" I ask.

"I was going shopping in the West End the next day and I wanted some money to spend," he says.

This annoys me. I'd been hoping some heavy had been demanding repayment of a debt, requiring the acquisition of ready cash.

But then I find myself joking with him when he describes the mugging itself. I tell him he failed to spot the laptop in a bag on my shoulder. "Attention to detail," I say with a smile.

I flip-flop the other way a few minutes later, saying, with some anger, that no-one should have to tell their kids there could be knife-wielding criminals on the street where they live.

Image caption Muggings do not always happen where you think they might

I realise I'm all over the place. Not being consistent. I should concentrate on the main aim - persuading him not to re-offend.

On paper this looks tricky. He's someone who chose to carry out a knifepoint mugging two weeks after being released from prison for exactly the same offence. He committed this offence in almost the same street.

So we all get stuck in. A volley of arguments from all angles. From Mum: "You need to move away from the friends you hang out with." From Dad: "You embarrass me, and your brothers and sisters. You'll ruin your life."

I try a different tack, partly informed by previous experience of speaking to young gang members as a journalist covering youth crime.

"Carry a knife," I say, "and eventually you'll use it. People can bleed to death in two minutes, then you're up for murder.

"If you get done again, it'll just get worse and worse.

"You've got parents who care about you. Many young offenders don't have that.

"If you're tempted to break the law again, think - 'I'm going to get caught.'

"Some guys caught up in youth crime actually think the friend who moves away from crime is the cool one."

Even, desperately, "I'm going to tell them I want to be informed if you offend again. You've got me on your back now."

So what's his reaction? Sometimes a smile, sometimes tears. A slightly forced, "I'm sorry for what I did," followed by a more believable, "I really mean it, I need to make different choices."

He promises to restart voluntary work postponed by his prison sentence. He promises his parents he'll do the right thing.

But in the end, it's three middle-aged people trying to change the path of a young man in his early 20s. I can't help thinking that we have no real idea what's in his mind.

And then it's over. He devours a box of chocolate biscuits provided by the prison and I leave.

I turn to the facilitator, Tony. "What do you think of his reaction?" I ask.

"Definitely on the positive side," he says.

So perhaps we've made a difference and prevented a life of crime. It's impossible to know, but at least we've tried.

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