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Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales

Presented to Parliament by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice by Command of Her Majesty

In 2007, 225,000 children in England and Wales received a caution or conviction for a notifiable offence1. Of these children, 106,000 were first-time entrants to the system having never before received a caution or conviction. 126,000 were prosecuted at court, and 5,800 were sentenced to custody. The average monthly under-18 custodial population for 2007 was 2,909.

Since that high watermark the number of children dealt with by the youth justice system has reduced spectacularly, with consistent year-on-year falls. The number of children cautioned or convicted in 2015 was 47,000 – down 79% since 2007. Over the same period the number of children entering the youth justice system for the first time has fallen by 82%, the number prosecuted at court has reduced by 69%, and there are now around only 900 under-18s in custody.

In the last decade the demand for youth justice services has changed. The police and youth offending services have, rightly, increasingly sought to deal informally with minor offending by children. The diversion from the youth justice system of children who were never likely to continue offending has meant that those who remain are the most difficult to rehabilitate.

Among the children now in the youth justice system are high numbers of black, Muslim and white working class boys; many are in care, and mental and other health problems, and learning difficulties, are common. These groups are particularly over-represented in custody, where over 40% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, a large proportion have previously been in care (38% in Young Offender Institutions, 52% in Secure Training Centres), and more than a third have a diagnosed mental health disorder. Many of the children in the system come from some of the most dysfunctional and chaotic families where drug and alcohol misuse, physical and emotional abuse and offending is common. Often they are victims of crimes themselves. Though children’s backgrounds should not be used as an excuse for their behaviour, it is clear that the failure of education, health, social care and other agencies to tackle these problems have contributed to their presence in the youth justice system.

Yet these are children for whom a traditional criminal justice response has been shown to be, on its own, inadequate. Sixty-four per cent of children given a Youth Rehabilitation Order by the court, and 69% of those sentenced to custody, go on to reoffend within a year. If the youth justice system is truly to protect the public, it must succeed in changing the lives of these most troubled children. To do this, a system set up almost two decades ago to tackle a different problem must evolve to respond imaginatively and proportionately to the challenges of today.

Principles and aims for the review

It is right that children who break the law are dealt with differently to adults. Children act impulsively and often do not appreciate the consequences of their actions; they are not emotionally developed and may struggle to communicate effectively. This is particularly true of so many of the children who offend, who often have learning or speech and communication problems. But children also have great strengths on which to build and are capable of rapid and extraordinary change. There needs to be a shift in the way society, including central and local government, thinks about youth justice so that we see the child first and the offender second. Offending should not mean forfeiting the right to childhood. If children who offend are to become successful and law-abiding adults, the focus must be on improving their welfare, health and education – their life prospects – rather than simply imposing punishment.

Almost all of the causes of childhood offending lie beyond the reach of the youth justice system. It is vital that health, education, social care and other services form part of an integrated, multi-agency response to a child’s offending, but it is more desirable that these same services intervene with at-risk children and families before their problems manifest themselves in offending. I believe this is best achieved by devolving greater freedoms and responsibility for the youth justice system to local authorities who otherwise hold the statutory accountability for educating and protecting children. By aligning these responsibilities stronger incentives can be created for a child’s offending and related difficulties to be tackled promptly, proportionately and with the least cost to the taxpayer. To help professionals to exercise these functions effectively, I propose stripping back the prescription and bureaucracy associated with a centrally controlled system and creating a clearer inspection and accountability framework, so that practitioners are judged on the outcomes that they achieve rather than the processes they follow.

It is my view that education needs to be central to our response to youth offending. All children in England are required to be in education or training until their 18th birthday, but too often children in the youth justice system have been out of school for long periods of time through truancy or following exclusion. As a result, half of 15-17 year olds in YOIs have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a 7-11 year old. Schools and colleges are crucial in preventing offending. If children are busy during the day, undertaking activity that is meaningful and that will help them to succeed in life, whether it be studying for exams, learning a trade or playing sport or music, they are much less likely to offend. Education and training are also the building blocks on which a life free from crime can be constructed. By forging closer links between schools, colleges and youth offending services, and by transforming youth custody into Secure Schools, drawing in expertise from the best alternative provision schools, children can be equipped with the skills, qualifications and confidence to move beyond offending and fulfil their potential. The government’s new ambition to make schools in England responsible for the educational provision of pupils that are excluded is particularly welcome as it will maintain the connection with mainstream education for some of the most troubled children.

In reforming the youth justice system it must be recognised that, for the vast majority of children, offending is a short-lived phase. The most recent data suggest that 62% of children who receive a caution or conviction do not go on to reoffend within 12 months. Growing up involves making and learning from mistakes. It is right that the youth justice system should tackle serious and persistent offending, but it should not be the mechanism by which all childhood mistakes are redressed. The right response to childhood offending should always be to address the causes of the offending behaviour and to repair harm to victims. This does not always require a criminal justice intervention. Evidence shows that contact with the criminal justice system can have a tainting effect on some children and can increase the likelihood of reoffending8. Wherever possible minor crimes should be dealt with outside the formal youth justice system, and when a criminal justice response is required children should be dealt with at the lowest possible tier. The long-term implications of formal contact with the system must also be reduced so that these do not act as barriers to rehabilitation.

It was concerning to see versions of the “Scared Straight” programme operating in England, in which either prison officers or prisoners themselves attempt to deter children from criminality by showing or explaining the realities of life in prison. This is despite international evidence that such interventions can increase the likelihood offending among children and young people9. In general, there is surprisingly little robust evidence from the UK about which interventions are the most effective, but what is undoubtedly important is the quality of the worker who is involved with the child, and the relationship that they strike up9. The evidence suggests that having one person directly involved, holding the child in mind, keeping going when things go wrong and caring about what happens to him or her, is vital in helping a child to change.

A more proportionate response to offending must also mean that the government and local services are prepared to invest intensive effort in turning around the lives of the most profoundly troubled children. Some children who commit persistent or serious offences have a range of problems that means criminal justice processes need to be able to adapt to individual circumstances. Professionals must have the freedom and the flexibility to make decisions about a child’s rehabilitation, and to adjust these plans to recognise progress or respond to setbacks. I believe the role of the court should be enhanced so that youth magistrates can play a much more active role in designing tailored plans for children, co-ordinating the contributions of partner agencies and holding the child, their parents and these agencies to account. Similarly, for those children remanded or sentenced to custody, the head teacher of a Secure School must have the freedom to hire the right staff, commission the required services and establish a programme of activity that will engage, motivate and rehabilitate the children in his or her care. To achieve this, custody must truly be the option of last resort, and those who go there must stay for a meaningful period of time. Professionals must be equipped with sufficient powers, and then trusted to take the right decisions with the most challenging children, if they are to reduce reoffending and thereby create fewer victims.