Published 11 November 2019
It may come as a surprise to hear that the youth justice system is on one level working quite well. It’s a surprise because terrible stories of young men and boys dying as a result of knife crime hit us every day.
Inspectors have condemned the youth custody estate for its levels of violence, poor education and lack of rehabilitation activities again and again. The disproportionality in the system with young black men and boys over-represented at every level is shocking. Reoffending rates have increased. There is chaos in the youth courts.
Yet the tragedy is that this chaos has come despite a remarkable success story in the sector. The new Crest report examining the youth justice system points out that the number of boys (and it is overwhelmingly boys) in custody declined by an astonishing 70% over the last decade. The adult prison population rose by 8% over the same period And while getting an accurate measure of the real levels of crime is difficult, it does seem that there has been an actual reduction in youth offending as well as custody. That means fewer victims and more boys in college instead of prison.
Knife crime is of course the terrible exception to this. But overall proven offences of all types committed by children fell by 75 per cent between 2008 and 2018. So we should try to understand why that has happened and learn from it. And whoever forms the next government in December should act on it too.
Crest describe a number of factors that lie behind the success that has been achieved. Three stand out:
Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) have been much more successful than the adult probation service in drawing together multi-agency teams to carry out diversionary and preventive activities. I am not one of those who think children should never be imprisoned but the evidence is overwhelming that the experience of custody is criminalising in and of itself. Keeping children out of custody where we can reduces crime.
YOTs and magistrates have a much closer working relationship than in the adult system. For all the problems, delays and what are sometimes poor processes, overall this enables a more thoughtful and child-centred approach to problem behaviour.
Police activity has reduced. There are fewer of them and the problematic ‘offences brought to justice’ target has been removed. This has created space for other approaches than prosecution, although the Crest report cautions that this may now have gone too far.
But while the numbers of children entering the criminal justice system may have reduced, the increase in the rate and frequency of reoffending of those that do demonstrates there is still a big job to do.
So what should happen now? I am all for the much heralded ‘public health’ approach to serious violence with more powers and funding for local preventative and diversionary services. But it would be an odd health system that said a public health approach and better hospitals was an either/or choice.
So the children who do end up in custody need a much more effective secure estate too. It is so frustrating that the savings resulting from the fall in the youth custody population were not used to improve it. There are now about just 900 children in custody today. That is the size of one average secondary school in which a good headteacher would know all the students names. So it’s a solvable problem.
It would be the small change of government spending to replace the current failing young offender institutions and secure training centres with much smaller places, locally based and with a properly trained and professional staff. I take my hat off to the people who are working in these institutions now, one of the most difficult jobs in the public sector. We just don’t give them the resources and support they need.
Crest’s report provides a pathway for whichever party wins the current election to build on the success we have seen in youth justice and sort out the mess that remains.
The Crest report
Professor Nick Hardwick was previously HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and Chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales. He is now Professor of Criminal Justice at Royal Holloway University of London.