government’s strategy for dealing with youth crime is centred on the use of
custodial sentences. But, as Anabel Unity Sale discovers, many who work with
young offenders are not convinced that the home secretary has studied the
children? Lock ’em up and throw away the key. David Blunkett may not have gone
quite so far last month when he outlined new plans to tackle persistent young
offenders, but Labour’s home secretary is taking a very hard line.
Courts are to be given new powers to remand
12 to 16-year-old persistent young offenders in secure accommodation. The
powers are being brought in by the implementation of section 130 of the
Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Initially they will only apply to the 10
street crime initiative areas of Avon and Somerset, Lancashire, London,
Manchester, Merseyside, Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire, Thames Valley, West
Midlands and West Yorkshire. From September they will be applied nationally.
Blunkett is also investigating strengthening the
law to deal with 10 and 11-year-olds who commit persistent low-level crime.
With the Department of Health he is looking at putting younger offenders in
"protective custody" such as intensive fostering.
Another measure to tackle crime is the
extension of the intensive supervision and surveillance programme into five
more areas (News, page 12, 9 May). ISSPs already operate in five of the 10
street crime initiative areas. Launched in July 2001, offenders on the
programmes are subject to intensive surveillance in the community for up to 24
hours a day, seven days a week. Surveillance includes being monitored by
electronic tagging and voice verification.
Blunkett says: "One of the biggest
challenges we face is how to deal with young offenders who believe that their
age makes them untouchable, who flout the law, laugh at the police and leave
court on bail free to offend again."
So what do those who work with young
offenders think about these approaches? Harry Fletcher, assistant general
secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, says: "It is
a misguided policy because we know that 80 per cent of young people who end up
in penal custody get into trouble when they are released."
The government’s measures will not prevent
youth crime, according to Chris Stanley, head of the youth crime section at
offenders rehabilitation agency Nacro. "The problem won’t go away through
quick fix approaches," he says.
So how should the government be spending
taxpayers’ money to reduce youth crime? The Coram Family’s Jane Scott believes
Blunkett’s desire to explore intensive fostering for young offenders is a step
in the right direction. As head of Coram Family’s intensive fostering service,
she says the approach has positive results.
The Fostering New Links service has 10
full-time trained foster carers on its books dealing with 10 young people aged
11 to 18 at risk of offending. The placements in the service cost each of the
five councils that refer young people to it £1,845 a week. Placements last
between three and 18 months and each young person and their carer is giving
continuous support from Coram Family, including access to its mental health
team. A social worker is allocated to each foster carer and every young person
has their own social worker and a teacher to help improve their educational
attainment. Specialist staff are also brought in to help the young person
develop hobbies and move them away from offending behaviour.
Coram Family recruits its intensive foster
carers through newspaper adverts and is always on the look out for new
volunteers. Carers are paid a fee of £24,000 a year and also get a weekly
allowance of £183 to cover the cost of clothes and outings for the young
While Scott admits that the Fostering New
Links service costs more than it charges local authorities, the results speak
for themselves. In 2000-1, 70 per cent of its young foster people improved
their behaviour and 76 per cent were attending school. This compares sharply
with the 82 per cent of young people out of education when they first started
their placements. More importantly, none of the young foster people had
received a custodial or a community sentence.
The government could also follow the example
of the now defunct Dorset Healthy Alliance Project (DHAP),1 advises
emeritus professor Colin Pritchard of Southampton University.
He headed the team that evaluated the social
worker-led project to reduce youth crime and school exclusion among 1,300
pupils in a primary school and a secondary school. Under the DHAP a
school-based child and family support service was established and education
social workers approached any child out of school without a legitimate reason
within 24 hours of their absence.
Over the DHAP’s three-year run truancy across
both schools fell by 50 per cent and there were significant reductions in
levels of drug-taking, fighting, theft and vandalism in the local community.
Pritchard says: "The social work team
was able to crack down on truancy, which is both a symptom and a cause of alienated
youth and criminal behaviour, by giving the child and family the support they
desperately needed." He adds that the project’s positive results underline
the fact that prevention is better than cure: "Most of the young people we
saw had had a raw deal in life and they deserved better."
He would be happy for the work of the DHAP to
be replicated in other socially deprived areas with high incidences of youth
crime and believes detaining young offenders in secure accommodation is not the
answer. "If you lock young people up you exclude them from society and the
first casualty is society itself," he says.
Alongside Blunkett’s move to lock up more
offenders, the government has also launched a new initiative to improve
outcomes for first-time offenders aged 10 to 17. As of April 2002 courts in
England and Wales can now make a referral order to most young offenders who
plead guilty and are convicted for the first time, unless the charge is so
serious as to warrant custody. They are referred to a young offenders panel
(YOP). Orders last a minimum of three months and a maximum of 12.
Young offenders referred to a YOP are dealt
with by two trained volunteers from the local community and an adviser from the
youth offending team. The panel can include other professionals, such as social
workers, if deemed necessary by everyone involved. Working with the young
person, their parents or carers and the victim of the crime (if they choose to
be involved), the panel agree a contract to address the situation. It includes
reparation for the young offender’s crime and a plan of what needs to be done
to stop them reoffending. Activities agreed by the panel can vary from sending
a written apology to the victim to cleaning up the graffiti or damage they have
Lorna White, a Youth Justice Board member,
chaired the Home Office and YJB steering group that created the panels in
conjunction with the Lord Chancellor’s Department, Nacro, Victim Support and
restorative justice organisations.
She believes young offenders panels will help
stop first-time offenders progressing into criminality. A key part of this is
the active involvement of their victims: "When most people offend they
rationalise their behaviour but if you confront them with their victim they are
forced to face a different reality to the one they have constructed."
White adds that by looking at all areas of a
young offender’s life – from their health and education to family background –
and including relevant agencies on the panel more can be done to stop reoffending.
"This is a whole new way of looking at a young offender in a multi-agency
approach," she says. "Now all agencies are working towards the same
aim – the prevention of the young person reoffending."
But won’t Blunkett’s plans counteract work
done by the YOPs? One source within the youth justice system believes they
could and the sector is preparing for a rise in the number of young offenders
going into custody. "It just doesn’t make sense for a young person who
stole a mobile phone to plead guilty if they are going to get a custodial
sentence and not a referral order to a YOP."
While Blunkett is serious about tackling
youth crime, there is a danger his plans will backfire and intensify the
problem. Non-custodial alternatives can work and it seems the government can
learn a thing or two from the sector’s good practice.
1 C Pritchard, A Family-Teacher-Social Work Alliance to Reduce Truancy
and Delinquency, The Dorset Healthy Alliance Project, Home Office, 2001,
available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs/occ78-dha.pdf