Since taking on the role of Chairman a year ago, I have seen, first-hand, how the criminal justice system has been grappling with the multiple challenges of dealing with young offenders.
We can all take pride in the fact that the YJB, working together with its youth offending services, local agencies, police and probation, have achieved the success of seeing the lowest ever level of young people in custody - less than 1000 at the start of this year.
But this brings its own challenges. These include:
- a more complex, often more violent, cohort of offenders
- the impact of gangs, particularly in our major cities
- the over-representation of black and ethnic minorities in the system
- the growing awareness of mental health issues, and child sexual exploitation as a factor in offending
It is clear that a step change is needed to address this. And one of the priorities for the YJB has been to pursue the effective reform of under-18 young offender institutions (YOI).
Our vision for the future regime in YOIs is one which is:
- holistic and integrated
- psychologically informed
- appropriately tailored to meet young offenders’ individual needs
- focussed on learning and attainment of life skills; and will be
- more rehabilitative, less punitive ie encouraging positive behaviours instead of regimes set to, and react to, bad behaviours
Upstream and downstream action
We have been working closely with our delivery partners in the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and other agencies on this, and the forecast is good for progress towards realising this vision over the course of the year.
We now, for the first time, have a single director at NOMS, Paul Foweather, responsible for the youth estate. That means that we can work across the piece to promote uniform standards of quality and care. We can promote clearer paths building on appropriate training, enhancing the skill-sets of those who work with young people; and we can increase their status to enable us to retain and promote the best and brightest within the system.
Yesterday I was in York presenting achievement awards to YOI staff. It was an encouraging, and heart-warming, experience.
Since becoming Chairman of the YJB, I have also set out my personal desire to see the current youth justice system going further, in tackling the problem of youth offending, by going upstream and downstream of the period of offending. It is a very simple reality that, by the time a young offender stands before a youth magistrate we may be ten years too late in addressing some of the issues involved in the boy or girl committing an offence. That is why I am eager to learn the lessons from the troubled families initiative and other early interventions, to see where action can be taken early and effectively. It should, by using focussed interventions, be able to cut crime off at its headstream.
There are benefits to be gained downstream too, by making sure that an offender has the necessary support to help avoid a return to re-offending. Just as we can see the danger signs upstream in various kinds of dysfunctionality and deprivation, so we can see the need for the support, training and mentoring which will help the ex-offender to make a success of a crime-free life.
The YJB has been working with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to improve the resettlement of young offenders into the community upon their release. For this to work in practice, though, we need public and private sectors to step up to the plate and offer job and training opportunities. I commend those companies who have already signed up to our ‘Turn Around to Work’ initiative, and encourage more to follow their lead.
We also need those local authorities and agencies who are responsible for housing, to provide appropriate and safe accommodation for young people, where a return to their family or former home is not appropriate, or desired.
And we need to ensure that there is continued care and support in place for young people with substance abuse issues, to build on the progress they have made to combat these whilst in custody.
Relationships between young offenders and local agencies
Many research studies and reports on the need for greater, and more effective, partnership working across a range of issues have been conducted over the last year alone. And many good and sensible recommendations have been proposed and agreed with by those concerned. The sad reality is that it still takes too long for recommendations to turn into actions. And for actions to turn into delivery. And for delivery to turn into results.
There are some key issues that are of particular concern to me and my Board, and where we believe early actions would result in better outcomes in the future for the complex cohort of young offenders we currently have, and for the children and young people at risk of entering the youth justice system as a whole.
Staff and training
The first of these key areas, as I have indicated, is the support and training for those frontline staff and practitioners, who regularly work with young offenders. I cannot stress enough the need for all agencies involved in the criminal justice system, to have a solid understanding of the specific needs of children and young people. But they also need to be able to apply this to the way they communicate and engage with this age group for every contact they have, especially from the time the young person is at risk, the time a young offender spends in custody, and the time to resettle them back into a community.
Staff who work with the young people should also be given high quality training to enable them to understand the needs of young people. They should be trained to recognise mental health needs, learning difficulties, speech, language and communication needs. They should also be able to recognise when children, who present as offenders, are in fact victims themselves, of exploitation or abuse. Staff should be given ongoing support and supervision to develop as practitioners. And staff should personally be supported to be resilient and able to deal with the emotional demands of working with challenging young people. Importantly, the calibre and quality of such staff also needs to be recognised and valued for their expertise.
There is also more scope for more upstream engagement with young people. With an election on the horizon, there is an opportunity now, for departments and local authorities and agencies to be enabled by a new government, of whatever colour, to deliver more progress on looked after children, mental health issues and troubled families.
The prevalence of mental health issues amongst children and young people, who come into contact with the youth justice system, has long been a matter of great concern to me.
A wide range of figures is often bandied about in regard to the extent of the needs of the young offenders who fall into this category. A high proportion of those with mental health issues are assessed and supported within the criminal justice system; including young offenders.
But it is too easy for them to fall through the cracks, not least because the effective pilot that the health department ran, to enable the successful liaison and diversion of young people with mental health issues, has been combined with the overall service; which caters for more adults than it does young people.
Many young offenders suffer from not being treated as children, in instances where their mental health is a significant, and contributing, factor towards their behaviour and actions. Encouragingly, there is a growing, cross-party, consensus for the need to give greater priority to mental health needs throughout the criminal justice system. And some useful initiatives are already underway. The fruits these bear will, I hope, have a positive and effective impact on the future management of such young offenders.
Reducing the prosecution of children in care
Another area, where there is clearly a need for evidence-based reform, is in addressing the appalling number of young people who are, or have been, looked-after children and who then end up in the criminal justice system.
It is a harsh fact that, though less than 2% of young people have contact with children services during their life, they account for some 24% of the youth custodial population. I particularly welcome the Prison Reform Trust’s initiative in establishing a comprehensive study to examine how we deal with looked after children, and to identify the measures needed to help end their over-representation in our criminal justice system. My colleague, Lord Laming, will be Chairing the study which will commence in due course.
This work will, in my view, contribute substantially to the need to reduce the over-criminalisation of young people in the care system. I see no reason not to adopt a ‘nationwide protocol’ to support effective practice in this field, to ensure this does not continue. It is essential that we do all we can to provide some life chances and opportunities to children who are already disadvantaged by not being with their parents; or living in a stable home.
The need to continue partnership working
We now, more than ever, have to encourage and practice a joined up, partnership approach, especially when all contributors to the youth justice system have to work within reduced spending remits. But that is surely where the holistic partnership philosophy comes into its own. A collective and collaborative approach towards shared goals will demonstrate that, where we intervene early and imaginatively with young people on the cusp of criminality, that intervention can divert them from crime. Where we help those who do end up in custody, we deliver outcomes which continue to work through the gate, and into the community. Where we are successful in these areas, we will have a positive impact on re-offending.
I have concentrated today on how we treat offenders. However I am conscious that is we are to carry public and political opinion with us, we have to be equally clear and firm in support of actions to help victims of crime. That is why I am a fervent supporter of the use of restorative justice, where appropriate; and why, when advocating the policies I have outlined today, I do so in terms of a triple whammy.
If we are successful:
- we save victims the trauma of future crimes
- we save the tax-payer footing the bill for the costs of a life of crime, involving multiple returns to custody through the revolving doors of our criminal justice system
- and, if we are successful, we return to society, someone who will make a positive contribution to their own lives and to the lives of others