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Reaching for the sun in a South African township, a child's hand grasps the wires on a fence as if stretching for freedom. The sunburst is located at the tip of the middle finger.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Young offenders need care not custody

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National Association for Youth Justice report calls for abolition of YOIs and STCs, instead placing all children in custody in Secure Care Homes.

The state of youth custody

The youth custodial estate in England and Wales is in a state of crisis. Addressing the root causes of that crisis requires radical, and urgent, action.

That’s the conclusion of a new (10 October 2016) report, “The state of youth custody” authored by Dr Tim Bateman for the National Association of Youth Justice.

While the conclusion isn’t a surprise, the report (unusually and very helpfully) recommends a straightforward, affordable solution.

Context

The National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) consistently argues for a minimum use of custody for children who break the law, saying that:

imprisonment should only be used as a last resort and for the shortest necessary period in those rare situations where a child’s offending is such as to pose a demonstrable risk of serious harm to others and where, after thorough consideration, no other alternative is sufficient to mitigate that risk.

The NAYJ also argues that where deprivation of liberty is necessary, children should only be detained in child care establishments that promote their wellbeing and longer term development.

The report starts by describing the substantial and very welcome reduction in the use of custody for children in this country; noting that those still in custody are typically more vulnerable and disadvantaged — and serving longer sentences because of the seriousness of their crimes. The report provides information on this vulnerability:

“In 2011/12, 33% of boys in YOIs reported that they had problems with drugs on admission to custody, by 2014/15 that figure had risen to 36%. There was a similar increase in the proportion of boys describing themselves as having emotional or mental health problems from 21% to 24%. There was a rise too, over the same period, in the percentage of boys reporting a care history, from 27% to 38%.”

Dr Bateman also highlights the fact that, disconcertingly, the fall in the use of custody has not benefited minority ethnic children to anything like the same extent as their white counterparts and, as a consequence, there has also been a considerable increase in the overrepresentation of black and minority ethnic (particularly black and mixed race) children within the custodial estate.

Whereas in May 2005, minority ethnic children made up 25% of the imprisoned population, by May 2016, they accounted for almost 45%.

Some of the consequences of a smaller population of more damaged and damaging children in custody are well-known to readers of this blog. Increased concern about their safety and many being held much further from home and family as a number of institutions have been closed.

The safety of children in custody is highlighted by the table below which is reproduced from the report:

children-in-custody-safety-figures

YOIs, STCs and SCHs

In England and Wales there are three distinct types of institution for holding children in custody:

Young Offender Institutions bear a marked similarity to adult prisons and are generally based in premises that have, at some time in the past, fulfilled that function. They  are considerably larger than other secure facilities for children, ranging in size from a capacity of well over 300 at Wetherby to 64 at Parc in Wales. They accommodate boys aged 15-17 years and typically have a staff-to-child ratio of 1 to 10.

Secure Training Centres were initially established as private custodial facilities for younger children aged 10-14 years subject to secure training orders but, following the replacement of that sentence by the detention and training order from 2000 onwards, have taken a broader population. STCs currently accommodate children aged 12-17, including boys aged 15-17 who are deemed too vulnerable to be placed in YOIs. They are considerably smaller than YOIs, each holding between 78-80 children, and they have better staff to child ratios of around 3 to 8.

Secure Children’s Homes are child care establishments that can accommodate children detained on welfare grounds, under section 25 of the Children Act 1989, as well as those subject to custodial orders. They cater for children aged 10-17 who are assessed as being particularly vulnerable. SCHs are substantially smaller than other forms of provision: the largest has capacity for 42 children whilst none of the others accommodates more than 24. SCHs also enjoy, by some margin, the highest staff to child ratio, an average of one member of staff to every two children who tend to receive higher (and more appropriate) levels of education and training.

Solution

Again, regular readers will know that we have been waiting for some time to find out what is happening as a result of Charlie Taylor’s review of the Youth Justice System (commissioned by the previous Justice Secretary Michael Gove with an interim report published in February 2016 and a full report due in the summer).

Although many reformers were pleased with Mr Taylor’s headline recommendation:

Young offenders should serve their sentences in secure schools rather than youth prisons.

many were not convinced that the necessary funds and political will would be found to make this happen.

Dr Bateman and the NAYJ suggest a radical, but direct and less expensive way forward — the abolition of YOIs and STCs and the expansion of Secure Children’s Homes:

The solution to the current crisis is not a ‘reinvention of the wheel’ – as the ‘secure school’ model implies – but simply the provision of adequate funding for the best existing secure provision. Legislative, and other, changes to ensure that child imprisonment is genuinely used as a last resort and for the shortest possible period, could make an important contribution to securing such funding.

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