The impact of COVID-19
The annual youth justice statistics (for the year 2020/21) which were published last Thursday 27 January 2022, are the first time we’ve had authoritative data to show the impact of COVID-19 on children in contact with the youth justice system.
The statistics show a youth justice system succeeding in fewer children coming into the system, fewer children in custody and lower reoffending rates, but, as was made very clear by Youth Justice Board (YJB) Chair Keith Fraser, “categorically failing on every count to halt the overrepresentation of Black children throughout the system”.
A system failing Black children
Mr Fraser spells out the stark statistics underpinning racial disparity:
“As a Black child in England and Wales you are more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, held on remand, sentenced to custody and to go on to commit another offence within a year.”
Another area highlighted by Mr Fraser is the high proportion of children who are in custody on remand. Indeed, the data in the review makes it clear that children on remand made up the highest proportion of the custodial population for the first time. Children spent an average of over two weeks longer on remand than the previous year. This is the largest proportion in the last ten years. The YJB chairs points out that, shockingly, almost three quarters (74%) of children remanded to custody did not subsequently receive a custodial sentence. This is the highest level seen on record and means, in Mr Fraser’s words, that “many children in custody today are there unnecessarily and experiencing the trauma and stigma that brings. This is damaging to children, their relationships, their opportunities and identity, which does not improve public safety”.
The YJB’s concern about this issue contrasts with the tone of the government’s review of child remands which we covered here and which “questions the dominant narrative that the number of children on remand has increased significantly or that custodial remand is regularly ‘overused’”.
We must prioritise addressing the use of remand, and its disproportionate use with Black children. Our research found that after taking into account the influences of offending, demographics and practitioner factors, Black children remain less likely to receive community remand (8 percentage points) than their White counterparts. We are working with various partners to address this with haste but there must be a collective effort to find and use less damaging, more effective ways to safeguard children and communities.
Impact of the pandemic
The likely impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the youth justice system can be seen in several areas within the YJB annual review. Periods of restrictions including court closures, pauses to jury trials, court backlogs, home schooling for many children, changes to people’s behaviour including reduced social contact and changes to custodial regimes are all likely to have contributed to changes in rates and numbers in several key areas, including:
- The lowest levels of arrests since these records began; likely to be driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic; with many children being home schooled for large parts of the year, as well as changes to people’s behaviour and a reduction in police recorded crime.
- Slow justice; the average time from offence to completion at court was almost seven weeks longer than the previous year, which is likely due to limits on court activity, including pauses to jury trials and the subsequent backlog of cases.
- Reoffending rate lowest ever; the rate saw a much larger decrease than in previous years with court closures, pauses to jury trials, increases in time from offence to completion, as well as actual decreases in offending all likely factors.
It will be difficult to disentangle long-term trends from changes caused by the impact of the pandemic for some time. Next year’s statistics (covering the current financial year) will also include large periods of time in which we have been in some form of lockdown, with the courts still struggling to make any headway on the highest ever backlog.