Skip to main content

New responses to vulnerable children in trouble: improving youth justice

This briefing paper considers emerging opportunities to develop better approaches and services for children and young people in contact with the youth justice system who have complex health needs and vulnerabilities. The paper will firstly examine the parameters used to assess the health and well-being needs of children and young people in trouble with the law, the scale of the challenge and how such needs impact on the risk of offending and on individual capacity to participate in criminal justice system processes. It will then go on to consider the importance of the government’s response to The Bradley Report and the importance of the government’s strategy in Healthy Children, Safer Communities to promote the health and well-being of children and young people in contact with the youth justice system in England, before examining how some of the main changes envisaged by Healthy Children, Safer Communities can be implemented. Accordingly, the paper will be of particular interest to professionals who work within youth justice and crime prevention systems as they develop a new focus on the health and well-being of children and young people. It will also be of benefit to organisations providing new services as the coalition government’s reforms are rolled out.

The provision of a youth criminal justice system for children and young people that is distinct from that provided for adults is congruent with international children’s rights agendas and acknowledges that children and young people are particularly vulnerable, requiring special arrangements for safeguarding their well-being. It is also important given that the majority of ‘offending careers’ actually begin in childhood or adolescence and that the peak age for (known) offending occurs around the period of transition between childhood and adulthood (which, in statutory terms, is around the time of reaching the age of 18). However, whilst it is widely accepted that children and young people who get into trouble with the law are predominantly those who experience or exhibit disadvantages or stresses that correlate with a risk of offending, including family, educational and environmental factors, until more recently research into the existence of health-related factors was more limited. By way of illustration, the Lord Chief Justice, in his description in 1997 of the typical (young) offender, largely neglected health and mental capacity issues:

‘To speak of “the typical offender” is, plainly, to generalise. But research findings confirm what many practitioners from their own experience would assert, that the personal profile of the typical offender can be drawn with considerable accuracy and particularity. He is usually male, and often of low intelligence, and addicted to drugs or alcohol, frequently from an early age. His family history will often include parental conflict and separation; a lack of parental supervision; harsh or erratic discipline; and evidence of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. At school he will have achieved no qualification of any kind, and will probably have been aggressive and troublesome, often leading to his expulsion or to truancy. The background will be one of poverty, poor housing, instability, association with delinquent peers and unemployment.’

Lord Bingham’s description is essentially that of the ‘typical offender’ in childhood and adolescence (albeit with social justice language notable by its comparative absence) and has retained its validity in the intervening years. However, there has been a growing body of research in recent years which has shed more light on factors that closely relate to the health and well-being of vulnerable children and young people at risk of offending. These factors include mental health problems, learning disabilities, learning difficulties, substance use problems and, often, speech, language and communication needs. Indeed, there is a growing research base which indicates that a majority of children and young people in the youth justice system exhibit needs arising from the presence of such risk factors.