Under surveillance

They are cheaper than custodial schemes and seem to prevent more
young offenders from slipping back into criminal behaviour. No
wonder politicians are beginning to get excited by intensive
supervision and surveillance programmes, reports Mark Hunter.

The number of under-18 year olds in custody rose above 3,000 for
the first time last year. This increase followed a string of
initiatives to cut street crime and mobile phone theft, but
perversely flies in the face of repeated studies showing that
prison for children simply does not work.

The latest of these studies is a comparison between two of the
Youth Justice Board’s flagship interventions – the detention
training order (DTO) and the intensive supervision and surveillance
programme (ISSP). Both measures are designed to be used only for
the most persistent offenders and both include strong elements of
“purposeful activity” intended to help young people address the
root causes of their offending behaviour. DTOs, however, include
several months of custody while ISSPs take place wholly within the

The comparison saw the community-based ISSP perform with flying
colours while the custodial-based DTO fell far short of
expectations. The investigators, from PA Consulting and Oxford
University, found that young offenders serving a DTO average only
12.7 hours of purposeful activity a week, 7.5 of which involve
education and training. This compares with an average 25.8 hours of
purposeful activity and direct supervision of young offenders on

What is more, most young offenders beginning a DTO have to wait
more than two weeks before their activity programme begins. Those
given an ISSP usually begin the same day. Given the fact that a
six-month ISSP costs £6,000 compared with £21,000 for six
months in a young offenders institution, the community-based
intervention appears to represent value indeed.

But does it work? At present it is difficult to be certain of
ISSPs’ impact on young people’s reoffending rates. The
programme is not yet available throughout the country and most
ISSPs have been in operation for less than 18 months. But there are
recidivism figures available for young people on DTOs and they are
not impressive. Less than 50 per cent last a year without
reoffending, around 30 per cent reoffend but at a reduced rate, and
the remaining 25 per cent reoffend at a similar or increased

This poor record does, finally, appear to be persuading the
government that custody is not the answer for most youth crime.
Indeed, from January next year, ISSPs will gradually begin to
replace DTOs as the intervention of choice for persistent young
offenders as the programme is rolled out across the whole of
England and Wales.

Around 4,200 persistent young offenders each year will be
subject to six-month ISSPs involving surveillance, such as
electronic tagging or voice verification and an intense programme
of education and training, offending behaviour work and one-to-one

According to the crime reduction charity Nacro, the move away
from custodial sentencing is long overdue. “The intensive
supervision and surveillance scheme has already shown that it can
divert persistent young offenders from crime in cases where other
approaches, including custody, have failed,” says a spokesperson.
“Any national roll out of the scheme is to be welcomed.”

In particular, the charity hopes greater community supervision
could help break the cycle whereby young people who have just
become involved in crime are further criminalised by the justice

Nacro states that nine out of 10 juvenile offenders leaving
young offenders institutions are back before the courts within two
years of release. And, all too often, what young people don’t
know about crime when they go into custody they have learned by the
time they come out.

In contrast, the ISSP programme seeks to change young
offenders’ lives by education, training, reparation to
victims and highly focused work to change offenders’
attitudes. This is combined with electronic tagging and a high
level of personal contact from volunteer workers.

Children’s charity NCH has also welcomed the move away
from custodial sentencing although public policy officer Jackie
McCluskey cautioned against the overuse of highly intensive
surveillance programmes.

“This sort of programme is only really intended for the very
serious end of persistent offenders,” she says. “So while we would
welcome less use of custody, we should recognise that not all young
offenders need that level of supervision and if you over-intervene
then you can have quite a damaging effect. There are a range of
sentencing options and I wouldn’t like to see the ISSP used
as a default option.”

Of course any move away from custodial sentencing is bound to be
seen in some quarters as the government going “soft on crime”. This
has been denied vehemently by chairperson of the YJB Lord

“ISSPs are not a soft option – they are demanding programmes
which help reduce the likelihood of re-offending. They avoid the
disruptive pitfalls of removing young people from their communities
and then having to resettle them. We are committed to ensuring that
ISSPs continue to retain the confidence of courts and

For Bob Baird, manager of the Leeds ISSP, there is no question
that the programme is having a beneficial effect on the
city’s persistent young offenders.

“Our results have been very encouraging, when you consider that
these are the real hard core persistent offenders we are working
with,” he says. “Our rate of completion is approaching 50 per cent
and the majority of those who are completing the programme are
doing so arrest free. The level of offending also appears to be a
lot lower even in those who do not manage to complete the

The Leeds ISSP currently has around 30 young offenders on its
books. Each is subject to an intensive programme focusing on five
core areas: at least 15 hours of education and training per week,
family support, interpersonal skills, challenging offending, and
restorative justice.

The 15-strong team of youth justice officers and youth workers
work closely with volunteers, and agencies such as the Connexions
service to ensure that each young offender receives a highly
personalised service.

However, Baird is keen to stress that the surveillance part of
programme is taken just as seriously as the educational elements:
“Most of our young offenders are wearing tags and are subject to
electronic curfews. We do check up to make sure they are where they
are meant to be, so there is a very intrusive aspect to it all. We
also have a strong relationship with the police. We share
information with the police and all the young offenders are aware
of that.”

Overall, Baird is convinced that the ISSP experience is offering
up hard evidence that non-custodial sentencing is the way forward
for youth justice. “Of course there is a small minority who will
have to be detained because society needs protecting,” he says.
“But for most we have shown that we can intervene in a way that
benefits both the young offenders and society as a whole.”

– For further information go to website

ISSP facts

  • The average age of young people on ISSPs is 15.8 years.
  • The mean number of recorded offences in the 12 months before
    coming in to the scheme is 10.3.
  • Their score on Asset, the YJB’s system of assessing
    vulnerability and risk factors for offending behaviour, is 24.8
    compared with a national average of 14.4.
  • At the beginning of their programme a mainstream school was the
    main source of recent educational provision in only 16 per cent of
  • Sixty-six per cent of those no longer of school attending age
    were unemployed. Some 84 per cent of this group had been excluded
    from school at some time.
  • In 85 per cent of cases, the young person coming onto an ISSP
    was thought to be associating with predominately criminal peers.
    When interviewed, 41 per cent said most of their friends committed
  • The mean reading age for those on ISSPs at the beginning of
    their programme is 10.6 years; five years below their average
  • Some 89 per cent of those young people interviewed at the
    beginning of ISSPs have admitted taking alcohol or drugs and 57 per
    cent of the young offenders have admitted to committing offences
    because they were drunk or on drugs. Just over half said they had
    committed offences to pay for drugs.

Source: Oxford University/PA Consulting

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.