For young people who commit crimes to fund a drug habit, the police
station will become an unlikely source of support under recently
announced government plans.
Arrest referral schemes, targeting drug-using offenders in custody
with treatment and advice, are being extended to under-18s to
prevent children becoming life-long offenders.
Adults in custody have had access to the schemes since April, but
this extension puts prevention further up the youth justice agenda,
Ten pilot schemes will test how best to engage young drug users and
identify the type of help they need. Following arrest, young people
will be referred to prevention programmes or treatment depending on
their individual needs.
The initiative is the latest attempt to help vulnerable children
with disruptive lifestyles. There is evidence of a
disproportionately high level of substance misuse among young
offenders. But research has shown that the connection is not a
straightforward one of cause and effect, and a range of responses
Tim Bateman, senior policy development officer at rehabilitation
agency Nacro, explains: “Drugs are not necessarily a gateway
through to offending but they are one of the underlying risk
The extension of arrest referral schemes to juveniles was generally
welcomed, although with some reservations. As the scheme is
voluntary, some experts believe convincing young offenders of its
merits may prove tricky. However, it is hoped the scheme will
provide a clearer picture of how many offenders have substance
In 2001, youth offending teams (YOTs) identified more than 27,000
young offenders with substance misuse problems. YOT workers said
the substance misuse was either quite or very strongly associated
with the young person’s offending in more than 10,000 cases.
Preliminary statistics from a Youth Justice Board evaluation of
substance misuse services within the prison system revealed that
most offenders had regularly used an illegal drug before they were
Other research has shown that violent crime is linked to serious
alcohol abuse and together the statistics form a convincing
argument for tackling substance misuse together with offending
Staff working with young offenders agree there have been several
positive developments recently. Every YOT now has a named substance
misuse worker, funded centrally by the YJB, and Bateman believes
these staff are well placed to help youngsters with the lowest
levels of need. However, finding help for those with the most
serious drug and alcohol problems is more problematic, he warns.
“There is a clear lack of residential provision for those with high
Services for young offenders in custody are equally embryonic. Anne
Owers, chief prisons inspector, recently admitted that some drug
programmes for 18-20 year olds are inappropriate.
Frances Crook, the Howard League for Penal Reform’s director, says
young drug users in prison for short periods are not recruited on
to treatment programmes and miss out on crucial support. “There is
nothing in place when they’re released and very often the first
thing they do is go in search of a fix.”
Drugs education charity, Drugscope, is involved in several projects
to develop training materials and good practice documents for
treatment programmes on behalf of the YJB.
Frank Warburton, acting chief executive, says it is still difficult
to get an accurate and detailed picture of what services are
available on the ground.
“There is a sense that the quality has been variable and there is a
need to promote minimum standards to bring uniformity to provision,
regardless of the setting.”