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A fresh start: improving the mental wellbeing of young people in the justice system



Delene Adams, Analyst Intern

Friday 8 October 2021

Analyst intern Delene Adams reflects on how her psychology degree shaped her time working at Crest Advisory - where she came to the conclusion that urgent action is needed to boost mental health provision for young people caught up in the criminal justice system

When I made the transition from psychology graduate to analyst intern in the crime and justice sector I knew I would not be leaving one discipline behind for the other; issues of mental health and crime are closely connected. But delays accessing mental health services are growing: in England [1], one in five child patients now wait longer than 12 weeks for help. After conducting research at Crest Advisory, it’s clear to me that support should be accessible at the earliest opportunity - it must not be an afterthought, otherwise it’ll be provided too late.

Mental health emerged as a consistent theme in my work on Crest projects, from demand forecasting for police forces to domestic violence; from county lines drug dealing to diversion routes from the court system. It affects the lives of victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime as well as the professionals who enforce the law.

Delene Adams

Police demand

For many individuals with unmet mental health needs, the police are their first point of contact. It means officers are in a prime position to identify those who need support. But during my internship, supporting the Crest team’s Poliscope work on measuring and modelling police time, it soon became apparent that forces are overstretched and struggling to deal with mental health problems, in addition to fighting crime. For example, since 2020, Suffolk Constabulary has experienced a 12.8% increase in mental-health related emergency calls [2]. The figures were obtained following a request under the Freedom of Information Act. What is missing, however, is a detailed picture of mental health demand and capacity across the police service. It is not mandatory for forces to report such information - but it ought to be; as part of a data collection exercise, control rooms should be required to log all such calls.

Child victims of domestic violence

My work on a domestic violence project confirmed to me what a huge impact it has on children’s mental health. In 2020, domestic violence was the most common reason for children seeking support, making up 43.6% of referrals to local authorities [3]. Since the 2021 Domestic Abuse Act, there has been an increasing acknowledgment of the mental health impact of trauma, with children viewed less as mere ‘witnesses’ of abuse and more as ‘victims’ who actively experience it. This shift recognises the urgency to mitigate the long-term psychological trauma faced by young people and ensure they are not hidden from support services. But the success of any such mental health support depends on understanding the context.

County lines drug dealing

Young people who are in the criminal justice system typically experience issues including abuse and neglect, exclusion from formal education, mental health problems and special educational needs [4]. Many are or have been looked after children. During my involvement in Crest’s county lines project, it emerged there was little evidence about psychological interventions for young people ensnared in criminal exploitation and violence. That was probably because victims do not fit neatly into boxes: each young person’s involvement in county lines intersects with a range of complex issues. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ service is not a solution.

But I found it encouraging to learn about the progress made in relation to ‘contextual safeguarding’ of victims [5]. Contextual safeguarding recognises the abuse and violence young people face beyond their home - through their friendships, schools, neighbourhoods and online activity. At the heart of that approach is seeing the young person separately from their offence. The next step involves addressing sources of harm with an integrated, community-wide approach, weaving together support for family, education, mental health and early help.

Youth diversion from the courts

When young people commit a crime it’s often a signal that a number of issues have not been identified or tackled earlier. In Crest’s recent work focusing on out-of-court disposals and ‘diversion’ programmes to address offending behaviour, we explored the avenues of support available to those likely to be trapped in a cycle of reoffending. At the point of arrest, there is an opportunity for police to identify the wider needs of young offenders, divert them from the courts and signpost them and their family towards tailored support. That might include child and adolescent mental health services, access to education and employment opportunities or drug and alcohol awareness courses.

When that early support, particularly for mental health provision, is cut back, it just means further down the line more money will have to be spent on the courts, probation and prisons, as well as health emergency and crisis services. My experience at Crest led me to question why we are not doing more to invest in services and access to opportunities for young people to stop them entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

“The childhood of being a victim is not as important as a moment of being an offender” - Andi Brierley [6]

Looking forward

There are some positive signs. The Scottish Sentencing Council has considered an approach in the court system for those under the age of 25, which is tailored to individuals and informed by the trauma they’ve experienced [7]. Under new sentencing guidelines for young people, Scottish courts could be required to prioritise rehabilitation over sanctions. That would represent a step towards addressing the unmet needs of young people and giving them an opportunity to change.

On a personal level, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to complete an internship at Crest Advisory. My involvement in various projects showed me that measures put in place to prevent crime are far more successful than prison sentences for those who have committed a crime. I also had the opportunity to engage with people whose job it is to protect some of society’s most vulnerable victims. It was inspiring to hear about the work they do and their hopes for expanding their services if they have the time and money. My experience certainly confirmed that my work in this area has only just started - as I move on to complete a Master’s degree in Criminological Research.



[1] Nick Triggle (2021). Children face ‘agonising’ waits for mental health care. BBC News. Accessed from:

[2] Mclaughlin, C. (2021). ‘Failure’ of Suffolk mental health service is feared behind rise in police crisis calls. East Anglian Daily Times. Accessed from:

[3] Characteristics of children in need, published 26 November 2020. Accessed from:

[4] Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (CSPRP) (2020), “It was hard to escape: safeguarding children at risk from criminal exploitation”. Accessed from:

[5] Firmin, C. (2019) Contextual Safeguarding: Theorising the contexts of child protection and peer-abuse. In J. Pearce, eds. Child Sexual Exploitation: Theory to Practice

[6] Andi Brierley. (2021). Connecting With Young People in Trouble. Risk, Relationships and Lived Experience. Waterside Press Ltd.

[7] Scottish Sentencing Council. (2021). New guideline on the sentencing of young people encourages rehabilitation to cut reoffending. Accessed from:


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