From reoffender to rising star

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Neil Puffett talks to Cordelle Cabey, national youth co-ordinator at User Voice

It has been a whirlwind couple of years for Cordelle Cabey. Back in 2010, he was out of both work and education, and had just completed a nine-month community sentence on an electronic tag.

Sitting in a coffee shop in central London on a crisp wintry afternoon, Cabey describes that point in his life as a crossroads. His new path is testament to his desire to change.

The 21-year-old has just finished a month-long internship at the Youth Justice Board (YJB), during which time he co-hosted the organisation’s annual convention in Birmingham. Meanwhile, his role as national youth co-ordinator at the charity User Voice has placed him on a platform representing the views of young offenders from across the country.

Cabey’s polished performance at the YJB convention triggered enthusiastic tweets from delegates describing him as a “rising star”.

“This internship at the YJB has shown other organisations that young people can turn their lives around and go on to achieve,” he says, smiling.

Given the government’s focus on creating a “rehabilitation revolution”, Cabey is aware of the symbolism of his journey.

But he is quick to insist that many of the young people involved in the youth justice system face far deeper issues than he ever did, adding that reforms are necessary to prevent the “revolving door” of offending.

Escape route
Indeed, though his turnaround is notable, he says he “dipped” in and out of offending behaviour, unlike many of the most troubled young people in custody, where reoffending rates currently top 70 per cent.

Growing up in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham, Cabey achieved 13 GCSEs, but started “mixing with the wrong crowd”, got involved with a gang and ended up being arrested a number of times.

“I lost one of my good friends and my nan on the same day when I was 17,” he says. “I wasn’t able to handle the grief. I kind of turned to gangs as a way out. I wanted to escape. It spiralled out of control.”

He started smoking cannabis and getting into trouble for “petty crimes”, such as criminal damage. It culminated with him spending nine months on tag for an offence that he is reluctant to discuss. He also admits to having completed “hundreds of hours” of community service.

As a result of getting into trouble, Cabey was asked to leave the family home and went to live in supported housing, “bouncing from one project to another”. “I have pretty much experienced most of the system,” he says, matter-of-factly.

However, he did eventually move back home, where the support and influence of his family helped him to focus on creating a more positive future.

“I realised the impact it was all having on my sisters and my mum and dad,” he explains. “It came to a point where I knew I was capable of a lot more and luckily I was able to realise that myself. Not all young people are able to realise how deep they are in.”

Fortunately, Cabey’s epiphany coincided with an opportunity at User Voice, a charity run by ex-offenders. He joined the What’s Your Story project, and spent time visiting youth offending teams (YOTs) and custodial establishments, interviewing young people about their experiences of services.

He then helped to write a report based on the project’s findings, featuring recommendations to help young people turn their lives around, top of the list of which was more employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

His current role as national co-ordinator at User Voice has allowed him to develop his expertise in participation with some of the most vulnerable young people in the country.

At the moment, for example, he is travelling around the country setting up “youth councils” within YOTs, to enable consultation with service users in order to help improve the support on offer.

The project, currently running in eight YOTs, is designed to help address issues that can lead to high levels of “breach” – where a young offender breaches the terms of an order and can face being returned to court.

“Young people sometimes have some fairly valid reasons for breaching,” he says. “They feel they are returned to court too easily.”

Improving communications
Cabey admits that the reception he gets from staff involved in the work is “quite mixed”. “Some YOTs you go in and say ‘I’m an ex-offender’, and they have no problem, but sometimes the staff can be a bit resistant and unsure about me and what our motives are,” he says.

“We are trying to create better communications between the staff and young people. Young people feel they can’t relate to their YOT officers a lot of the time and they are not being understood. They say: ‘Why can’t we have more people like you working in YOTs?’”

Cabey believes that being an ex-offender gives him credibility with young people, who are reassured by the fact that he understands “where they are coming from”.

“It’s about sitting down with a young person and pointing out that a YOT worker is there to help steer them away from reoffending,” he says. “Sometimes it just takes a one-to-one with myself

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