A youth-led report
The Young Advocates project is led by children & young people aged 14–20 who have lived experience of the youth justice system and want to be part of a movement to drive positive change, delivered in partnership between the Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) and Leaders Unlocked.
Their first report, published 24 February 2022, presents findings from engagement with over 120 young people across England and Wales, and focuses on the three priority topics of stereotypes, education and warning signs, and jail (custody). The aim was to identify patterns that run through society, and the education and justice systems overall, to find out what young people feel increases the chance of entering the justice system. In response to the findings, the Young Advocates developed a series of recommendations for decision-makers to address these challenges.
The report focuses on the three topics mentioned above (stereotypes, education & warning signs, and custody) and each topic is illustrated with the words of the young people consulted in this peer research study.
The children and young people involved in the project mostly connected stereotyping with their negative treatment and experiences with the police, particularly young Black males experiencing increased stop and searches, being labelled as a gang member or gang-associated or receiving harsher sentences. However, they also said that stereotyping is present across many areas and systems, and about many characteristics. These included experiences of girls and young women which are often overlooked, and those that attend alternative educational provisions. The result is that many young people feel they have to change and adapt themselves to not seem like a threat.
“Stereotyping has made me look at the way I carry myself, I always speak properly, I don’t speak in a certain way.”
Young people felt that stereotyping by police has created a lack of trust which has spread throughout the whole system, resulting in an unwillingness of young people to listen at school or elsewhere. Frightening and frustrating police interactions can also cause fear and anger from children and young people that has short- and long-term impacts.
“ Police have a lot of experience with young people so they have good reason to stereotype young people but sometimes they do go over the top like stop and search they say you match a description when the description matches the whole of south London.”
As part of the project, the Young Advocates produced a set of guidelines for reporting on children and young people in contact with the law, which are reproduced below.
Education and warning signs
Many of the Young Advocates have experienced school exclusion and associate this with feeling they weren’t listened to and having no one around to talk to about their issues before they escalated. The Young Advocates identified a lack of communication between schools and the police and wider justice system, particularly after a child or young person has been arrested for the first time, which is a key moment for intervention to happen. They also identified that county lines and other forms of criminal exploitation of children are issues that are getting worse and increasingly affect younger age groups.
“ Getting excluded made me hate authority more and lose hope.”
The Young Advocates agreed that teachers and parents spend the most time with children and so should be most aware of the warning signs that a child is at risk of getting in trouble with the law. But unfortunately, many do not realise when young people are beginning to go down the wrong road, may not know how and when to intervene, and by the time they do, it can be too late.
“ If I didn’t go to PRU I would put money on it, I would not be in here in prison – I would still be playing football. I stopped playing football when I went to PRU and I lost my old friends from mainstream and made new ones that were negative influences. You have to fit in with them and put on a front.”
In this report “jails” covers all the secure settings and experiences of children and young people that have been placed in custody such as Secure Children’s Homes, Secure Training Centres and Young Offenders Institutions. Several of the Young Advocates have been affected by or experienced jail in the past. They emphasised that jail can ‘make or break’ young people and for most young people it doesn’t work so they keep coming back. Even though going to prison is supposed to rehabilitate, it can be very isolating, fear-inducing and feel like an inhumane, emotional punishment, especially for a child or young person.
“ Training is needed…prison officers need to understand you’re working with kids.”
Treatment and experiences at secure establishments also varies from site to site, meaning where you are placed has a big impact on your overall experience. On top of this, complaining is difficult and takes a long time, which causes stress and impacts upon mental health without creating any change.
“ I would like more time out my cell and different things to do in my cell to keep me busy.”
Verbal, physical, and racist abuse was highlighted as a major issue in child custody settings, particularly by those who were not currently in a secure facility which may suggest the problem is bigger in reality. The harms of isolation and restraint were also repeatedly mentioned. There was a perception from some of the children and young people we spoke to that prison staff have low self-esteem, are seeking power, and take this out on young people they work with.
This is just the first report of the Young Advocates project which intends to amplify the voices of young people with experience of the justice system by focusing more deeply on the three key themes identified here with a particular focus on experiences in custody, care and alternative education.