As a new report condemns the British youth justice system for failing young people and demands far-reaching reform, we discuss how bad the situation is and what needs to be done
A child throws a bowl of cereal at his care worker, jumps out of the window and then climbs back in. He is arrested for assault and attempted burglary. It might seem ridiculous, but this is a genuine case from a report on Britain’s youth justice system.
‘The report urges a ‘common sense’ approach to minor incidents, with schools, social services, communities and families playing a greater role. It also says young offender institutions are often promoting offending rather than reducing it, and calls for an overhaul of the whole system.
It recommends joint working between services, a whole family approach, promoting the benefits of relationships and meaningful punishments.
Furthermore, in March, the European Council’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, wrote to justice minister Kenneth Clarke saying the youth justice system in England was ‘excessively punitive’. He advised him to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10.
Rules of Engagement: Changing the heart of youth justice’ – published by the Centre for Social Justice in January – argues that courts and prisons are a ‘dumping ground’ for problem young people. As the example shows, too many are going to court for trivial reasons, and getting a criminal record.
RYG discussed these issues with:
• an anonymous solicitor (AS)
• Kevin Huish (KH), custody and mental health lead at the Police Federation of England and Wales
• Jacqui Rolando (JR), director at Project Beacon (offering offender resettlement, training and employment support)
• Jenny Chambers (JC), policy development officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Is the youth justice system a ‘dumping ground’?
JR: Absolutely. When there is a difficult young person, they are a problem to their school, their parents, their community and the police. If they go into prison, the ‘problem’ goes away.
AS: The youth justice system is so intertwined with the services young people come into contact with. Sometimes, the support they receive can be so bad that they would rather be in custody.
KH: Services are over-stretched, due to a lack of funding and staff.
JC: We have the highest numbers of young people incarcerated in western Europe. If you consider that at least 40% of young people on remand in custody are acquitted or receive a community sentence, it’s clear they should have never been in prison.
Is it promoting offending?
KH: It is, when it’s sending young people to young offender institutions inappropriately, as they then learn to become proper criminals from the prolific offenders. This is compounded by a lack of rehabilitation opportunities.
JR: Going into Feltham prison, for example, can be seen as a badge of honour. It’s the law of the jungle and if you’re not assertive you become a victim – this promotes aggressive behaviour. Once you’ve gone through the prison system, the fear of reconviction and authority is less significant.
JC: With 7 out of 10 young people leaving custody being reconvicted within a year, something isn’t working. The Howard League’s Life Outside project followed young people who had been released. They faced strict terms of licence, having to attend 25 hours supervision a week, and were labelled as offenders in custody and by youth offending teams.
AS: The act a young person has to commit to return to custody becomes much more minor than if they had not been through the system. Missing a curfew could land them back inside as easily as stealing a mobile phone. Are too many children being given custodial sentences for trivial reasons?
AS: It’s 100% the case, and the earlier they go in to the system, the more likely they are to remain. There’s little proof that custodial sentences help. So many young people who offend have a care background, and time inside breaks relationships. Some will be released as adults and not be entitled to the state support they had been receiving.
JR: It’s clear that some young people I meet are more victims than perpetrators. They are subject to peer pressure, and have low school attainment and self-esteem and little family support.
KH: In my experience, custodial sentences are only given as a last resort, sometimes far too late. I appreciate this could be different elsewhere.
KH: Restorative justice methods have proven to be successful – especially when some form of benefit to the victim is involved.
AS: Work schemes in the community. The work must have purpose and be embedded in the community where the offences are taking place. This can help reduce local crime, because the person feels a connection with where they live.
JR: Something that improves their circumstances. Current ‘payback’ schemes often further marginalise young people. They have to wear orange suits, are labelled as offenders and often perform menial tasks that focus on cost-saving. They are not learning new skills or developing.
JC: Multi-systemic therapy – intervention in the community by a team of psychologists who work with children and their families.
What can be done to tackle the problems?
JC: Investment needs to be focused on early intervention and prevention. If the age of criminal responsibility increased in line with the rest of western Europe, a lot of what is considered a crime would no longer be a criminal matter. It would be dealt with by the welfare system and the young person would receive more support.
KH: Families need to be re-educated to take on their parental responsibilities. There needs to be a real investment in young people for whom the academic route won’t work. They need to be identified early and directed down a vocational route, to give them skills to enable them to work.
AS: The youth justice system needs to create links with the young people in it and be informed on how it can improve. This is empowering for young offenders and can create trust in authority.
JR: It’s about sentences working towards something positive. It’s not an excuse, but a child’s brain is still in development, so we should use this time appropriately.