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Young offenders exercise outside K wing of the new YOI prison. HMP & YOI Littlehey. Littlehey is a purpose build category C prison.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Examining our youth justice system

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Crest Advisory report analyses what drove the falls in first time entrants and custody in the youth justice system and asks what we should do as a result.

Yesterday (5 November 2019), Crest Advisory published a new report examining the successes and failures of our youth justice system.

Examining the YJS: What drove the falls in first time entrants and custody, and what should we do?” starts by looking at the dramatic falls in the number of children been sentenced to custody. In 2018 there were 4208 fewer custodial sentences given compared to 2008 – a fall of 73%.

The big falls in youth custody were primarily driven by reduction in the number of children entering the criminal justice for the first time, rather than them by general liberalising of sentencing and/or reduction in reoffending. Crest’s research has also highlighted a significant amount of regional variability in the declines in first-time entrant (FTE) rates and declines (or increases) in custody and proven offence rates.

The report notes that there is a surprising lack of evidence regarding the impact of diversion, although clearly fewer children are being unnecessarily drawn into the criminal justice system (and thereby criminalised) than was the case a decade ago. However, the report also contends that the contraction in police activity may have inadvertently had some negative consequences, for example, by reducing the opportunity for providing early intervention to first-time offenders at risk of further offending.

The report goes on to argue that it is at the “front end” of the system, that the adult criminal justice system could learn most; specifically with regards the role of Youth Offending Services in managing children who commit crime and advising the courts.

At the “‘back end”, the youth justice system has arguably done little (if any) better than the adult system. Indeed it is a damning indictment of public policy that despite a falling youth custodial population, the safety and overall quality of youth custodial institutions has declined dramatically over the last decade and reoffending rates have risen.

Key findings

  • The majority of the decline in children in custody can be attributed to the fall in first time entrants, which was itself mainly down to changes at the pre-court phase, including the diversionary activity of YOTs and the police.
  • The continuation of these declines has been sustained by a shift towards a more child-centred approach, including a much closer relationship between YOTs and magistrates than exists within the adult system.
  • The trends in first time entrants and custody have left behind a smaller cohort that is more complex in terms of vulnerability/ needs and more serious in its offending.
  • The observed declines are not immune to change.
  • The ‘YOT model’, consisting of a multi-agency approach, the existence of a key worker and greater personalisation, has been an important driver of the successes achieved by the youth justice system, and we believe the specialism of YOT practitioners should be protected.
  • The government has failed to ‘cash the gains’ of a falling custodial population: in particular, the contraction of the youth custodial estate presents a missed opportunity to ensure a greater number of children are incarcerated in smaller, more localised institutions, rather than Young Offender Institutions (YOIs).
  • As a result, outcomes for children held in custody today are worse than was the case a decade ago.
  • Despite an increase in emphasis on resettlement, structural changes have negatively impacted resettlement and rehabilitation, particularly for children leaving custody.
  • There is significant local variability in the performance of YOTs, particularly with respect to. rates of FTEs and youth custody – a strengthening in the evidence base of ‘what works’ is needed to understand the key determinants of success and failure.

Recommendations

The report splits its recommendations into two sections: the first section looks at areas of youth justice system which are ripe for extending into the adult system; whereas the second section identifies areas of the youth justice system requiring reform.

Areas where the adult system can learn from youth justice

  • Extend the YOT model up to age 25: multi-agency teams should be responsible for preventing first time entry through effective triage and rehabilitating young adult offenders by providing holistic support both in the community and in prison.
  • The early termination of Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) contracts is an opportunity to reset the relationship between the probation service and the judiciary, learning from the approach taken within the youth system, whereby YOTs and magistrates show a high level of concordance and mutual trust.
  • Police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and probation to co-fund a bespoke community sentence specifically tailored to 18 – 25 year olds committing high volume, low harm offences, which would provide a more effective alternative to short prison sentences.

Areas for reform

  • Make prevention one of YOTs’ statutory functions and monitor the impact.
  •  Central government should dedicate greater priority and resources to strengthening the evidence base regarding diversion and children at risk of contact with the youth justice system, including the drivers of racial disproportionality, with a view to establishing new national principles for effective diversionary practice
  • Remove the ability of youth magistrates to issue custodial sentences of less than six months to children.
  • Devolve custody budgets for the youth custodial estate to Metro-Mayors, where appropriate.
  • Government to review the suitability of provision for all children held in secure accommodation – with a view to reconfiguring the youth custodial estate. As a first step, we recommend an immediate moratorium on the closure of secure children’s homes and an explicit commitment to the closure of Young Offender Institutions.
  •  Central government to clarify that the YOT model should be retained by local authorities.
  • A stronger role for the courts in rehabilitating children.
  • Tightening up existing Youth Justice Board (YJB) targets around resettlement, so that every child is guaranteed a personalised resettlement and transition plan. Government departments should pool budgets in order to ensure suitable accommodation is fully funded for children released from custody
  • The YJB should dedicate more of its budget to researching and disseminating best practice about the comparative effectiveness, and cost, of interventions to reduce reoffending.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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