Why are there fewer young offenders?

The rise and fall in first time entrants

A new (19 October 2017) report from the MoJ: An analysis of trends in first time entrants to the youth justice system investigates the reasons for the very large drop in the number of under 18s entering the youth justice system.

Over a ten year period, there were substantial changes in the number of young people entering the youth justice system for the first time. The number of youth first time entrants (FTEs) increased rapidly from 2003/04 and peaked in 2006/07 at 110,784.

This rise was followed by substantial year-on-year falls, so that in 2014/15 there were 20,544 FTEs – around 80% fewer FTEs compared to the peak.

With these trends in mind, the study’s authors (Alex Sutherland, Emma Disley, Jack Cattell and Stefan Bauchowitz) aimed to address the following principal question:

What were the possible societal, policy or practice drivers and factors associated with the changes in the number of FTEs, in particular those associated with the substantial falls in FTEs?

Explaining the rise in youth first time entrants

The available evidence indicates that changes in police activity, primarily in response to a government target, were an important contributor to the increase in the number of FTEs between 2003/04 and 2006/07. In 2002 a target was introduced to increase the number of Offences Brought to Justice (OBTJ) and reduce the gap between the numbers of crimes recorded by the police and those for which a perpetrator is identified. There is some evidence that, in order to meet this target, the police focused their attention on young people who had committed non-serious offences, as they can be easier than adults to apprehend. This may therefore have resulted in greater numbers of young people who had committed low-level offences, including FTEs, being brought into the youth justice system – a process known as ‘net widening’.

Explaining the falls in youth first time entrants: possible societal and social drivers

The changes in the number of FTEs have taken place against a background of wider social and policy changes, for example:

  • overall crime has been falling in England and Wales since the mid-1990s and there is some evidence that youth crime may have also fallen;
  • there is evidence of reductions in some of the risk factors associated with youth antisocial behaviour and crime (such as substance misuse and school exclusions);
  • prevention programmes to support vulnerable families have been introduced (such as Sure Start and Family Intervention programmes); and
  • Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) have undertaken prevention work with young people who were perceived to be at risk of offending.

Most of the changes set out above happened before the substantial reductions in the numbers of FTEs started in 2007. While these factors and programmes (e.g. Sure Start) may all have made some contribution to the reductions in the numbers of FTEs, they did not occur or were not implemented on a sufficient scale to account for the overall change.

Explaining the falls in youth first time entrants: changes in criminal justice processes and decision making

The sharp nature of the changes in the numbers of FTEs, and the fact that the changes occurred over a relatively short period of time, strongly suggests that the main driver was a change in criminal justice processes and/or decision making.

A number of policing and criminal justice policies and practices were implemented during 2008 and 2009, some of which were introduced in response to a new government policy on youth offending. Many of these initiatives were intended to increase the discretion of the police to divert young people who had committed a low-level crime away from the formal youth justice system.

In April 2008 the OBTJ target was revised to focus on more serious offences. These types of crimes are less likely to be committed by young people than adults. This policy change may have led to a change in police practice, which in turn could have contributed to the substantial falls in FTEs. While the falls in the numbers of FTEs started before the target was changed, it may be that some police forces started to refocus their practice in anticipation of this revision and changes to the government of the day’s policy on young FTEs.

Police-led diversionary practices and informal sanctions, such as Community Resolutions, the use of restorative justice and triage, may have helped to maintain and perhaps accelerate the falls (particularly in specific types of FTEs – notably children and females who are more likely to commit low-level offences).

It is not possible to substantiate the extent to which these possible drivers had an impact on the numbers of FTEs. However, these policy changes broadly correspond with observed changes in the number of young people arrested and in the number of FTEs, and, on balance, the researchers conclude that it is unlikely that the timing of the refocus in police practice was purely coincidental.

Conclusions

Changes in policing practices appear to be the most likely (but probably not the only) driver of both the increase and then the decrease in the number of FTEs in England and Wales between 2003/04 and 2012/13. Specifically, the introduction of the OBTJ target appears to have led to a sharp increase in the number of young people brought into the formal youth justice system for the first time. This in turn led to shifts in the characteristics of FTEs, with greater volumes of low-seriousness offences being formally sanctioned.

The start of the reductions in the number of FTEs appears to be partly attributable to a revision to the OBTJ police target (to focus on more serious offences, which tend to be committed by adults), along with national policy and police practice changes introduced to increase the diversion of young people who had committed a low-level crime out of the youth justice system.

However, these changes occurred after the decline in the number of FTEs that began during 2007, indicating that they are not the only drivers of the change. While it is possible that the police may have anticipated these changes, the falls in FTEs may have been assisted, to some extent, by a reduction in youth crime, as well as longer term trends which have seen reductions in the risk factors associated with youth offending behaviour.

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