Since the start of this year there has been a 10 per cent
increase in the number of young people held in custody in England
and Wales. This flies in the face of the Youth Justice Board’s
commitment to reducing the number of young people behind bars and
acknowledgement that detention makes the problem worse.
Young offenders are some of the most vulnerable people in society.
They are at risk from mental health problems, suicide, self-harm
and drugs and alcohol problems before they even come into contact
with the justice system.
Once in a young offender institution and faced with a regime of
strip searches and use of solitary confinement, these problems
escalate. Each year a growing number of young people commit suicide
in custody. In 2003, there were 11 deaths in the 18 to 20 age
The survey to launch Community Care‘s Back on Track
campaign on youth justice paints a bleak picture. Researchers
questioned almost 400 members of youth offending teams and social
workers whose clients are in custody.
More than 70 per cent believe services for young offenders are
reaching crisis point. More than 67 per cent know of at least one
client that has considered or attempted suicide in custody and more
than 80 per cent know of at least one client that has
More than 80 per cent of respondents believe that not enough is
being done to improve conditions in young offender institutions and
more than 70 per cent don’t believe that custody is the best place
for young people to be rehabilitated.
Despite the findings and huge increase in the prevalence of young
people assessed as vulnerable in custody – from 26 in 2000-1 to
3,473 in 2003-4 – the YJB maintains that it has robust measures in
place to identify mental health problems.
“All young people who come into the youth justice system will have
a comprehensive assessment which looks at factors that may have
contributed to offending behaviour,” said a YJBspokesperson. They
can also be referred to child and adolescent mental health
“All young people are entitled to such services – incarceration
does not remove their right to primary health care,” she added. The
YJB has set tough targets for diagnosing vulnerability by
However, more than 85 per cent of respondents to Community
Care‘s survey believe that detaining children with mental
health problems should end immediately.
“The message needs to go out loud and clear from all elements of
the system that custodial sentences for low-level offenders with
mental health problems only serve to create more problems,” says
Gill Reynolds, young person’s project manager at charity Revolving
“Young offenders continue to be a focus for retribution in our
press and media. The reality is that a high proportion of them are
vulnerable individuals with substantial mental health needs,” she
She says that the government should end the detention of vulnerable
young people as a priority.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says that custody
only compounds rather than resolves the difficulties for vulnerable
young people. Reoffending rates as a result are high. “Within two
years of release, three-quarters will have been reconvicted and
almost half – 47 per cent – will be back in jail, not surprising
when you consider the dearth of support for young people on
Much of the problem lies in the confusion between the values and
aims implicit in the government’s policies. On the one hand setting
up youth offending teams (Yots) and encouraging more community
sentences is the right direction to take, says Pauline Batstone,
chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and
manager of Bournemouth and Poole Yot. But the political agenda on
crime and the reclassification of activities that were once legal
such as meeting on street corners are criminalising new sections of
young people, she says.
Fran Russell, assistant director of the Howard League for Penal
Reform, believes antisocial behaviour orders are a significant
problem. “Many young people on these orders may not be known to
Yots and are not offered enough support. When they breach these
civil orders, they move into a punitive legal system that will send
them to prison.”
She says the political support for tougher policies on crime is
increasing the severity of the sentences. “Young people who aren’t
criminals are being sucked into the system.”
Reynolds also says there is a problem with sentencers sending far
too many young people to prison. “This can undermine some of the
more effective approaches being developed by the YJB and the prison
“A similar survey of magistrates might help to illuminate why so
many young people are being sent to prison when so many alternative
options are now available,” she adds.
Despite the vulnerability of young people in custody, instances of
strip searches and solitary confinement continue to happen. More
than half of respondents to the survey know clients that have been
subjected to unnecessary control or restraint while in
Russell adds: “They don’t have the resources to care for young
people with mental health problems, their response is to put them
into solitary confinement which will only make the problem worse.
We need to change the regime.”
She believes that the Department of Health should be in charge of
young offenders. “Once you have deprived these young people of
their liberty, the priority should be looking after their
“The punitive approach of the Home Office does not work.”
Back on Track campaign aims
- Dramatically reduce the number of children and young people
being held in custody and calls for the greater use of community
- Give children and young people better standards of treatment
while in custody in order to help them when they leave and minimise
the risk of reoffending.
- Insist that the treatment of young people in custody conforms
to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Bring an end to the degrading and humiliating practice in young
offender institutions such as routine strip searching and the
overuse of control and restraint.
- Call on the government to reduce the use of custody for
children and young people, only using custody as a last resort and
for the shortest possible lengths of time.
- End the practice of remanding young people in adult
- Promote the use of community initiatives such as youth
inclusion projects to help children and young people with
resettlement on release and minimise the risk of reoffending.
- Increase the provision of services of offenders – in custody
and the community – in need of treatment for mental health problems
or drug and alcohol misuse.
- Reduce self-harm and suicides among young people in custody by
encouraging more involvement of social workers and removing from
prisons those children and young people with serious mental health
- Urge the government to ensure that the resources allocated to
providing access to social workers in young offender institutions
are being properly administered.