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Drug dealer explains how he turned his life around after realising he was 'going to end up dead'

In the 1990s, Stu Otten was part of Liverpool’s dark criminal underbelly. Here's how he broke free and changed his life

Stu Otten works to shed light on the link between trauma and criminality. Image: Causeway

Stu Otten used to sleep with a machete under his bed. In the 1990s, the Liverpool local was part of the city’s dark criminal underbelly. He was a drug dealer of cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis – a job that brought him into violent conflict with rival Merseyside gangs.

“It’s the rules of the jungle in that world,” he recalls. “I’d be lying in my bed at night, worried that someone was going to come and get me. I had a moment when I realised: I am going to end up dead, or in jail for a long time.”

Otten had “never planned to be a career criminal”. But the roots of antisocial behaviour run deep. Some 84% of male prisoners have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, a figure that rises to 94.3% of female prisoners. Research shows that nine in ten violent young offenders have suffered from abuse or loss.

Otten – now 46 and head of criminal justice at the charity Causeway ­– knows this vicious cycle intimately. Growing up on a Liverpool council state in the 1980s, he was relentlessly bullied, a constant tirade of abuse from “from every quarter”.

“I was lucky to have a loving family, but the bullying meant I was very disconnected, very insecure,” he recalls.

Former drug dealer Stu Otten as a child in the 1980s. Image: Stu Otten / Causeway

Increasingly isolated and angry, Otten joined a local kickboxing club. For the first time, he felt like he belonged. But the club also provided a gateway into the seemingly glamorous world of organised crime. Older boys with designer clothes, expensive watches and fast cars ruled the roost. They took a shine to the teenage Otten, securing him a job as a doorman around Liverpool’s pubs and clubs. Shortly afterwards, he became a drug dealer, and was soon immersed in the world of crime.

“At the time, you don’t sit there thinking, I’m a criminal. You just think, ‘Well, I’ve got a bag of drugs that I need to drive over to Wales,’” Otten explains. “It’s almost like you’re thinking about it as a job, like I’ve got a meeting to deliver at 2 o’clock today.”

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“But you are obviously taking part in criminal activity. I was getting increasingly violent. I was volatile, and toxic, and spiralling out of control.”

How can we reduce crime?

On the brink of “death or prison”, Otten managed to step away. He disassociated himself from those he knew, enrolled at Liverpool John Moores University to study social work, and started rebuilding his life.

Sadly, such escapes from the world of organised crime are rare. England and Wales have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, at 141 people per 100,000. The prison population has risen by 80% in the last 30 years – and it is currently projected to rise by a further 7,400 people by 2024. Some 63% of inmates who serve less than 12 months in custody will reoffend within a year of release.

Successive Tory governments have claimed to be “tough on crime” – but harsh sentencing doesn’t tackle antisocial behaviour at its roots.  

Recent studies found that those with four or more adverse childhood experiences were seven times more likely to have been a victim of violence in the past year, and were eight times more likely to have committed a violent act than those with no adverse childhood experiences.

Today, Causeway have launched their new “Breaking Cycles, Building Lives” campaign to raise awareness of the link between crime and deep-seated trauma. It’s this link that motivates Otten, who now spearheads Causeway’s crime reduction department. With counselling and education programmes, the charity helps reform people within ­– or at risk of entering – the criminal justice system.

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Trauma does not excuse criminal behaviour, Otten says – the victims of crime must always come first, and “the justice system needs to run its course”. But the only way to prevent reoffending is to work with offenders, he says.

“You have to work [those] deep, dark demons out. Because if you sit in trauma you make decisions from a trauma response,” he says. “In my case I knew what was right and wrong, but I chose decisions that put me in harm. I almost enjoyed the buzz of it.”

Stu Otten, in his early 20s, when he was a drug dealer immersed in Liverpool’s criminal underworld. Stu Otten / Causeway

Now a father and a dedicated social worker, Otten is proof that people can change – if you give them the opportunity to do so.

“I believe in justice,” he says. “But we have to support people who have done wrong… we have to give them a second chance.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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