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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Youth custody: Is a rethink of youth Justice required?

With England and Wales having one of the highest youth custody levels in Europe, Andy Hillier asks a panel of experts what should be done to reduce the numbers of young people held.

William Higham, Head of Policy, The Prison Reform Trust

"See you soon." That's the farewell all too often given to children and young people leaving custody by prison staff. People working in the system see the bitter reality behind the sky-high reoffending rates for young people.

Three-quarters of male offenders aged 18 to 20 reoffend within two years. For children, the figures are even higher. And yet the Government continues to act as though prison is the best answer for preventing crime among young people. There is a ratchet effect: if prison didn't work, then the answer must be more prison.

This leads to Home Office funds being mortgaged into providing ever more, hugely expensive custody places in a chronically overcrowded system. In some young offender institutions in the South East, the average length of stay is 10 days before the young person is churned out to wherever a place can be found, however remote. Clearly these sentences make no sense. Meanwhile the kind of effective, deliverable community crime prevention schemes championed by Smart Justice, the Prison Reform Trust's sister campaign, constantly struggle to survive. Prison is starving everything else with its appetite.

The Prison Reform Trust has begun a five-year strategy to reduce child and youth imprisonment. The aim is to reduce the prison population of children and young people by building on the success of restorative justice in places such as New Zealand and Northern Ireland. It will also look at how best to accommodate mentally-ill people who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

It is a long-standing national scandal that the UK uses prison as a make-weight for missing parts of the healthcare system. With young people, the problem is particularly intense. Eighty-five per cent of 16- to 20- year-olds in custody exhibit signs of a personality disorder, and one in 10 shows signs of psychotic illness.

Rod Morgan, former Chair, Youth Justice Board

The proportion of children and young people committed to custody on remand or sentence increased sharply in the 1990s but has since stabilised. The reason why there are near-record high numbers in custody lies elsewhere and so, therefore, must the solutions.

The key issues are: the massive growth in the number of young people criminalised – 26 per cent nationally in the period 2002-06, but two to three times greater in some police areas, the considerable increase in the use of prosecutions, as opposed to pre-court warnings, the more intensive requirements now attached to many community sentences, the tighter enforcement of those community sentences and more punitive procedural and sentencing provisions, particularly in relation to persistent and so-called "dangerous" offenders.

There is no evidence that young offenders are today responsible for a greater proportion of offences than in the past or that their offending, despite recent worrying incidents of gun-related crime, has become more serious.

The size of the custodial population is related to the overall growth in criminalisation and the increased speed at which many young offenders are no wratcheted through the system into custody. Many more young offenders are entering custody, or being returned to custody, for breach of community penalties or licences. This means that custodial terms are getting longer.

To reverse this trend, we must resort to criminalisation much less frequently, which means granting the police greater discretion to deal informally with relatively minor offences. The Government's targets for "offences brought to justice" and persistent offenders need to be related to seriousness.

The emphasis with community penalties needs to be on "facilitating compliance" rather than "enforcement" to avoid back-door entry into custody. By these means we might reduce custody levels.

Chris Stanley, Head of Policy and Research, NACRO

There is an emerging consensus that the number of young people in custody is too high; there is less agreement about what should be done about it.

Along with many other commentators, Nacro believes we need increased resources for community-based interventions and robust, credible, alternatives to custody. Indeed, Nacro has been lobbying for the resurrection of the provisions in the abandoned youth justice bill for a standalone intensive supervision and surveillance order. This would provide a hurdle to custody that only the most serious of young offenders could jump.

However, our experience teaches us that these measures alone will be insufficient in reducing custody. Despite funding for youth offending teams increasing by more than 20 per cent between 2002 and 2006, and the fact that in 2005-06 more than 5,500 young people were made subject to an intensive supervision and surveillance programme, the population of the juvenile secure estate remains at near-record levels.

To make a real difference to custody levels, we have to do something about young people entering the system. The level of custody is closely correlated with the number of young people coming to court. To reduce custody levels, resources must be targeted at diverting young people and young adults before they reach the courts.

Historically, the number of people held behind bars has fallen when the use of pre-court disposals, such as cautions, has been high. The sharp rise in incarceration since the early 1990s is associated with a marked decline in the proportion of young people diverted from court. Geographically too, those regions that lock up most young people are those with the highest rates of prosecution.

The Government must start taking a broader approach. It should focus on those at risk of detention and on reducing the numbers of young people appearing before the courts.

Sarah Tough, Researcher, Institute for Public Policy Research

One of Tony Blair's final announcements as Prime Minister was to launch an early intervention pilot programme supporting mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds as part of a more preventive approach to tackle the exclusion of young people. However, Labour's record on addressing the causes of crime has been tainted by its punitive approach to youth justice.

There are nearly 3,000 young people in secure accommodation in England and Wales. Forty per cent of people in the youth justice system have mental health problems and many suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. To many – including the prisons inspectorate and the UN – this represents a national disgrace.

Research shows that public perceptions of young people in Britain are overwhelmingly negative, with "paedophobia" – fear of young people – impacting on people's lives. In 2004-05 more than 1.5m Britons thought about moving away from their local area due to young people hanging around and 1.7m avoided going out after dark. Britons are more likely to say that young people are predominantly responsible for crime and antisocial behaviour. So perhaps we think young people who misbehave simply belong in custody.

However, attitudes are not solely authoritarian. The Rethinking Crime and Punishment studies found public support for crime prevention strategies focused on improving parenting and working intensively with children at risk. This suggests public support for a more coherent social policy approach to youth offending.

First, we need more co-ordinated evidence-based interventions targeted at supporting children at risk of crime. Second, we need to support and rehabilitate young people who cross the line into antisocial or criminal behaviour to divert them away from becoming prolific offenders. Third, any future strategy needs to focus on communicating the effectiveness of non-custodial solutions and turning round our negative attitudes towards young people.

Bridget Prentice, Justice Minister

The creation of the new Ministry of Justice provides an opportunity to build on the significant progress that has been made in the youth justice system since the creation of the Youth Justice Board in 1998.

During that time the way children and young people who offend are managed has been radically overhauled. One very visible symbol of success has been the youth offending teams – the multi-agency bodies of local authorities that have been established in every area, leading to young offenders being dealt with more quickly.

There remains considerable debate about young people and custody and I understand people's differing views on this. But let's look at the facts – the proportion of young people who offend and are sentenced to custody has fallen from the already low figure of four per cent to three per cent. In order to lower these numbers even further, the cornerstone of our approach will remain in investment in early intervention and prevention. We aim to reduce the number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system through closer contact with schools, police and health services.

However, it is sometimes necessary to remove the most serious or persistent offenders from the community. In these instances, the introduction of the detention and training order aims to give young people in custody the chance of a fresh start by allowing the opportunity to spend the second half of their sentence in the community under close supervision.

The Youth Justice Board has put great effort and resources into developing and implementing the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, a community intervention for young people at serious risk of going into custody. At the end of 2006, there were 1,283 young people on the programme.

We will also be work with the Sentencing Guidelines Council to achieve greater consistency in sentencing across England and Wales.

Edward Garnier, Shadow Minister for Home Affairs

As David Cameron has said: "Crime, antisocial behaviour, disorder and incivility on our streets: these are the consequences of a breakdown in society – of a collapse in social responsibility... if we actually want to reduce crime, we can't go on just picking up the pieces."

It's difficult to be positive about the success of crime initiatives when 70,000 school-age offenders encounter the justice system annually, 2,800 children are in custody, teenagers commit 42 per cent of first offences and 41 per cent of juveniles reoffend within one year of release.

Youth crime and consequent custody are facts of life but we can do more to prevent criminal behaviour such as supporting families, encouraging school attendance and showing responsibilities for others. Forty per cent of boys and young men and 25 per cent of girls and young women in custody have experienced violence at home. A quarter can barely read or add up and three-quarters have been excluded from school.

And what about substance abuse and mental health? Half of jailed 16- to 20-year-olds are drug or drink dependent and 85 per cent have personality disorders. The Government's answer is legislation and bureaucratic reorganisation.The 60 Home Office Acts that have been introduced have achieved nothing if crime and custody figures are any judge.

No government can be a substitute for family, community leaders or teachers. But the state can free resources for schools, communities and families in need. Local leadership, local answers and local justice appropriate to local needs will help to reduce crime and reduce the numbers of young people in custody.

Social responsibility is a two-way street. Let us give organisations, associations, faith and community groups the chance to do what they can. This government should see them as part of the solution, not the problem.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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