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Youth Justice Out of Court Disposals vary in quality

No standard approach to Out of Court youth justice disposals results in big variations in quality of delivery.

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New Research & Analysis Bulletin

Last Friday (17 September 2021), HMI Probation published their fifth Research and Analysis Button of the year focusing on the quality of delivery of out-of-court disposals in youth justice. The bulletin is based on the evidence from on 43 YOT inspections conducted between June 2018 and February 2020. Inspectors looked at the cases of 724 children who were the subject of out-of-court disposals.

Context

As the numbers of children within the formal youth justice system continues on its more than decade long decline, the profile of the cases that remain is changing, with an increasing proportion of children subject to out-of-court disposals (non-statutory community resolutions, youth cautions and youth conditional cautions).

Key findings 

Inspectors found that the lack of standardisation of decision making, assessment, planning and delivery of out-of-court disposals has led to a number of different models across England and Wales and considerable variations in the quality of delivery between YOTs.

They found that the best performing YOTs tended to have a robust framework for managing out-of-court disposals, where staff understood their roles and that of their partners and where inter-agency communication was strong. Board membership was sufficiently diverse, with skilled and engaged board members from key agencies able to facilitate effective multi-agency working.

Across those YOTs that were performing less well, shortcomings were found in relation to the levels of communication, recording, performance monitoring, and feedback.

Interestingly, inspectors found that the effectiveness of leadership and management was not necessarily correlated with the quality of delivery of out-of-court disposals. An important responsibility for YOTs is to work with other agencies, and with parents and carers, to try to establish a safe space to support children towards positive, healthy and pro-social lives. However, a theme running through almost all the poorly performing YOTs was an insufficient focus upon the safety of the child and/or other people. This often commenced at the assessment stage, where there was a focus upon desistance but insufficient attention given to potential safety issues.

There was a sizeable number of cases in which inspectors concluded that insufficient recognition had been given to specific concerns and they disagreed with the ‘low’ safety and wellbeing and/or risk of serious harm classifications. There was thus a sub-group of children missing out on potentially beneficial support and protections; safety concerns can escalate over time, and well-focused, personalised and coordinated multi-agency activities have the potential to benefit both the children and wider society in the longer term.

Implications

The overall quality of the case-level work in relation to out-of-court disposals was below that for court disposals. The difference was particularly marked at the assessment stage in terms of the sufficiency of the focus upon keeping the child safe and keeping other people safe. Further analysis revealed that assessment was less likely to be judged sufficient for community resolutions compared to youth conditional cautions. Inspectors found instances of assessments not being completed at all, assessments being completed by unqualified or untrained staff, and the use of tools which did not sufficiently consider all relevant circumstances and the full context, hindering a whole-child approach.

Analysis of inspectors’ commentary revealed common enablers and barriers to the effective delivery of out-of-court disposals. Key enablers included:

  • YOTs seeking to be involved early so that they could inform panel decisions, utilising a suitable assessment and making sure that the disposal was appropriate
  • using multiple techniques to connect with and engage children at the assessment and planning stages
  • utilising multiple sources of information to build a more complete picture of the factors influencing the child’s offending and relevant safety concerns
  • considering the work of other agencies engaged with the child to better coordinate and compliment delivery, and identify potential post-disposal work
  • ensuring that plans are proportionate to the needs of the child and to the disposal, and build sufficiently upon the child’s strengths
  • ensuring flexibility in the delivery of interventions, assisting with engagement and compliance.

The Inspectorate notes that, while out-of-court disposals are a chance to address less serious offending in children and help them desist before their offending becomes more serious, it is also a chance to detect and address safety concerns, both to the child and to others, before these concerns and associated risks escalate and have a detrimental impact upon life outcomes. Overall inspectors concluded that this is an opportunity that is too often being missed.

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