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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

What works with young offenders?

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These findings are well known to researchers, policy makers and practitioners in the youth justice field although, as always, there is value in having them re-iterated. My personal view is that any reform of youth justice needs to focus on two key issues...

A summary of the international evidence

To accompany Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system, the Ministry of Justice has just (9 February 2016) published a new summary of the international evidence, entitled (somewhat clunkily): What works in managing young people who offend?

The review focuses on the impact and delivery of youth justice supervision, programmes and interventions within the community, secure settings, and during transition into adult justice settings or into mainstream society.

The review

A Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) was conducted to assess the international evidence systematically.  Evidence was considered from any country where studies were reported in English, and published between 1st January 1990 and 28th February 2014. As always, the majority of these findings are from evaluations conducted in the United States of America and caution is advised when considering their transferability to an English and Welsh context .

child in custody

Key findings

The main findings are set out below.

Diversion importance

The researchers remind us that “when applying risk based or other approaches to inform rehabilitation planning, it should be borne in mind that some young people will desist from crime without any intervention.” There is also evidence to suggest that drawing young people who commit low level offences into the formal youth justice system may increase their offending. The review reaffirms the importance of diversion:

Therefore, diversionary approaches, including restorative justice, which direct these individuals away from the formal justice system may be appropriate for some young people.

Families are (often) key to successful outcomes

The review highlights the importance of effective partnership work and the role of the family, where appropriate. Within the community, effective programmes can be characterised by strong inter-agency partnerships that are well managed, with appropriate strategic leadership. Partnership protocols need to be embedded into routine practice. The best international evidence shows that family based therapeutic interventions that draw on the community and also consider wider offender needs can be effective and deliver a positive net return on investment. That said, the family can itself be a setting of trauma, abuse and exploitation and this may be particularly relevant for those young people who come to the attention of youth offending teams. This, therefore, needs to be considered as part of intervention planning for young people who offend.

Community based interventions tend to be more effective than custody

Some young people will, however, always need to be sentenced to custody and these young people are likely to be those in most need of intensive intervention. Where appropriate, consideration should be given to moving young people to well trained foster carers. Good quality supervision in custody also requires planning for release and resettlement to be an integral part of the sentence, and for young people’s needs to be assessed in terms of transition back to the community.  Brokers or advocates who will help guide young people through this transition and be available whenever needed are “worth considering”. Given the litany of inspection reports criticising the young offender resettlement process, a stronger recommendation would have been helpful.

Boot camps don’t work

Prison visitation programmes aimed at young people at risk of offending were not found to reduce offending behaviour; conversely, they may increase the likelihood of committing crime. Military style ‘boot camps’ run as alternative to custody were also found not to reduce reoffending.

We have known both these facts for many years, but it’s helpful to have it included in the review to combat the predictable headlines from the Daily Mail and others if we move towards a more evidence-based approach.

Communication

No one style of talking with or to young people is going to resonate either with all staff or all those in their care. However, there is some consensus that effective communication is characterised by mutual understanding, respect, and fairness. Motivational interviewing and other techniques that allow a young person to confront the consequences of his or her actions can be useful when deployed in conjunction with other support and individual therapies.

Working with young people

Finally, the researchers conclude that:

In all settings young people need to be encouraged to develop agency, autonomy, and respect for others as well as themselves. This requires commitment from staff as well as the young people themselves. Care should be taken to make sure that young people understand how they arrived at their position, and how to move forward.

Conclusion

These findings are well known to researchers, policy makers and practitioners in the youth justice field although, as always, there is value in having them re-iterated.

My personal view is that any reform of youth justice needs to focus on two key issues:

  1. Overcoming our traditional reluctance to engage families fully in helping programmes
  2. Ensuring that staff in all youth justice settings have a positive attitude towards troubled young people and are well supervised and supported to develop their skills
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