UNITED KINGDOM: Youth justice reforms must go 'further and deeper'

Summary: Sweeping reform of the youth justice system is necessary to prevent hundreds of children being "needlessly" criminalised and sentenced to custody, according to a think-tank.

The Centre for Social Justice, set up by Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan-Smith, warns that the youth justice system is operating as a backstop, "sweeping up the problem cases that other services have failed, or been unable, to address".

It argues that changes to prevention services, court procedure, community sentences, the secure estate, inspection regimes, resettlement services and youth justice training must be made to improve prospects for children in trouble with the law.

The report, compiled by a series of experts including former Youth Justice Board chair Rod Morgan, also makes a fresh call for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised, echoing similar calls in recent months.

It asserts that the existing system is often operating in a way that promotes, rather than reduces, offending and there continues to be too much focus on functional process at the expense of life-changing outcomes.

Among other things, the report calls for:

  • A statutory duty for local authorities and their partners to provide early support services for children and families at risk of offending;
  • Shifting responsibility for prevention services from YOTs to local authorities;
  • A review of the structure and remit of YOTs amid fears they are losing representation from statutory partners;
  • Developing youth-led training for police on engaging with young people;
  • Raising the custody threshold and minimum period in custody to six months to prevent the use of short "unproductive" prison sentences;
  • Introducing unannounced youth offending team inspections and making them more about practice than process;
  • Improving training for youth magistrates and defence lawyers;
  • Taking young offender institutions out of prison service management, to be run by a separate agency.

Writing in the report’s preface, CSJ executive director Gavin Poole said governments past and present have attempted to reform the system but "further and deeper" reform is required.

"Many young people continue to fall into the system unnecessarily and do not receive the help they need to free themselves from it," he said.

"Custody is sometimes neither a protective nor a productive place for children, and community orders can be equally as ineffective.

"Moreover, despite years of good intentions, many young people leaving custody are still not being provided with the basic support they require for rehabilitation. Many of these young people consequently become the life-long persistent offenders who are saturating our adult prisons. This cannot continue.

"We need to ensure that opportunity for transformation is maximised at every stage of the youth justice system," Poole added.

The report has been welcomed by leading figures in the sector.

Maggie Atkinson, children’s commissioner for England, said evidence shows that the majority of children in the criminal justice system are from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds, with many experiencing neglect, abuse domestic violence, poor parenting and poor educational opportunities.

"We need to repair the damage that has been done to these children, and support them through intervention and other measures, such as family therapy, to help them turn around their lives," she said.

"Work in this area must be protected from difficult spending cuts regimes in local authorities to ensure these children can be supported outside of the criminal justice system."

Enver Solomon, policy director at The Children’s Society and chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said he backed the call to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

He added that the response to young children offending should focus on the family and wider community.

"A child's offending so often stems from a failure by those who parent and support them to provide the tough love that ensures mischief does not grow into much more troubling behaviour.

"This is certainly not a soft option. It is an approach that will bring better results for victims, communities and, most importantly, children themselves."

Further Information:

Owner: Neil Puffettpdf: http://www.cypnow.co.uk/Youth_Justice/article/1112244/Youth-justice-refo...

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