For all David Blunkett’s tough talk, there is no getting away
from the fact that the government’s current policy for tackling
youth offending – with its emphasis on custody and a punitive
approach – is just not working.
As our Back on Track campaign draws to a close, one of the key
messages to emerge is that custody isn’t a solution – it just makes
But though the system is clearly in need of reform, the good news
is that we found a lot of committed people out there striving to
make it better.
Those pressing for change are to be found at the Youth Justice
Board, in youth offending teams, in social services departments and
in voluntary organisations both locally and nationally.
But there is a danger that in the run-up to the election next year
their voices may be drowned out. Vulnerable young people at risk of
offending could end up as pawns in the political process with the
media and some politicians only too happy to use them as a
scapegoat for all society’s ills.
Our campaign has fought against that approach and the culture of
naming, shaming and generally demonising young people. We have
highlighted what we think is wrong with the current system but we
have also drawn attention to good practice.
Here we round off the campaign by giving the last word to four key
stakeholders who set out what they believe needs to happen
Magistrate John Fassenfelt has served at the youth court in
Sittingbourne, Kent, for more than 10 years. He is also head of the
local youth court panel, and vice-chair of the Magistrates
Association youth courts committee.
A common theme among the youngsters I see is that they often don’t
have the support of a family.
Coupled with family issues is the availability of drink and, to a
lesser extent, drugs. Ten years ago, one in 10 youngsters coming to
court were girls, now it’s about one in four and a lot of this is
because of drink.
Another theme is lack of education – and that’s not to say that the
individual is unintelligent. Although local education authorities
say that informal exclusions from school don’t go on, they do. This
means it is difficult to place them elsewhere as they are still on
that school’s books. It leads to them getting into trouble.
Antisocial behaviour orders don’t get at the root cause, they
prevent but they don’t divert. I was asked to put an Asbo on a
teenage boy who had thrown stones at a phone box and broken the
glass, but I thought a community sentence was adequate to keep him
out of trouble. The association’s view is that not every breach of
an Asbo is custody bound. One has got to be extremely careful about
the use of custody and make the sentence in proportion to the
We meet the youth offending teams (Yots) regularly and review how
young people are getting on. Unfortunately, we don’t see our
successes, only our failures because they come up in front of us
We support local authority secure children’s homes rather than
young offender institutions. Young people should have greater care
and attention than they are getting at the moment. Magistrates need
to build confidence in community sentences and that will hopefully
reduce the numbers put in custody.
PC David Leach, police liaison officer in Harrogate youth
offending team, North Yorkshire Police.
My personal view is that the earlier we can start to work with
somebody who is identified as getting into trouble the better. The
key to preventing them going up the offence scale is to put in the
right intervention for the risks.
Now we have the ability to tackle people younger and use a
multi-agency approach. For example, a North Yorkshire Police
initiative called Crucial Crew involves the Yot, school nurses,
ambulance crews and others. Local school children aged 10 to 11 are
taken through various scenarios such as the consequences of
offending, taking drugs and safety issues.
It means we speak to a whole range of young people, none of whom
may be involved in offending, but it gets the message across at an
For intervention work I try to focus on victim awareness so the
young person understands the consequences of their actions. What I
hear a lot across the county is that there’s nothing to do. We see
what is available such as sports and clubs and encourage them to
have a constructive lifestyle.
Where possible and appropriate, community-based sentences are
useful so that the offending behaviour can be addressed and the
young person can work with the Yot.
In some cases community punishments aren’t suitable. We have a
rigorous assessment for the intensive supervision and surveillance
programme (ISSP) and in some cases it is a good alternative to
custody. But sometimes custody is the only suitable sentence – for
persistent offenders, when community sentences have been tried and
failed, and for grave crimes.
The introduction of Yots was a huge step forward. It’s early days
but their range of interventions is growing and if we continue with
that work then services will be improved.
Chris Stanley, head of policy division at crime reduction
The relationship between the courts and youth offending teams is
very important if we are to reduce numbers going into custody. We
need credible programmes that courts feel are genuine alternatives
to custody and feed back to show the degree of success.
Once children and young people come into the system it has already
failed. We should be doing much more before that – more preventive
work, more work around final warnings and even more
Recent Youth Justice Board research showed that 52 per cent of
young people reaching court had never had a reprimand, they had
gone straight to the final warning stage. So far more are going to
court than should be the case.
We aren’t just talking about good alternatives to custody, we need
to make sure that the whole system is working correctly. High
custody areas often have a poor use of other sentences such as
reparation orders or action plan orders.
Courts are attracted to the ISSP because it is a good programme.
But the young offenders put on ISSPs often lead chaotic lives and
that leads them to breach the ISSP, which then leads to custody.
That and breaching Asbos is why there has been an increase in the
numbers in custody.
There are currently proposals for youth courts to transfer criminal
cases to the family proceedings court if the young person has
overwhelming welfare needs. Nacro and the Magistrates Association
are backing this.
Geeta Subramaniam, strategic youth offending
service manager at Barking and Dagenham youth offending team in
Reoffending rates show that custody isn’t working. There are a
number of reasons for this: not enough work is being done in YOIs
around education and we need to have a smoother resettlement
programme so there is more joint working between the YOI, Yots and
Our YOT has educational psychologists who go into the YOIs, and
staff go in to run offending behaviour programmes that gives the
young offenders a link with a worker when they come out. Plus there
is an education adviser in the team who meets young people of
school age in custody to keep them on the school roll otherwise
they have to re-enrol when they come out which can be a long
There are many risk factors to offending. At least 75 per cent of
young people on our books smoke cannabis. This makes it harder for
them to manage their life and behaviour. It’s an issue but young
people see it as normal. That’s a hard nut to crack and we won’t
crack it with the government decision to lower its classification.
If we said 75 per cent were taking heroin or crack, everyone would
be jumping up and down.
If we were given more money it would be spent on preventive
measures. We are always looking out for other funding streams, we
have to pool, share, beg and borrow. Yots do a lot of partnership
work very well and we have laid the foundation for the children’s
We would always look for the best package for a young person and
try to manage that in the community. But if they can’t be managed
in the community we would say that custody is the best
But I am particularly concerned about the ethnic breakdowns of
young people in custody. If a Yot recommends a young black person
should have a community order but they get a custodial sentence, is
it because of the offence or because of discrimination in the
criminal justice system?
Back on Track Campaign Highlights
- Media launch at the Repa youth centre on the Rockingham estate
in London’s Elephant and Castle. Speakers included ex-offender
Bobby Cummines who backed the campaign on behalf of the
organisation Unlock. He said in his experience custody brutalised
rather than rehabilitated young people.
- Community Care commissioned a survey of professionals that
revealed 70 per cent feared services were reaching crisis
- Children’s campaigner Hilton Dawson MP tabled an early day
motion in support of the campaign. It was signed by 68 MPs.
- Letters from Community Care managing editor Mark Ivory
highlighting the issue of the dangers to vulnerable children of
being held in young offender institutions were published in
national newspapers and local media.
- Community Care commissioned an NOP poll that found that a
surprisingly high proportion (70 per cent) of the public were in
favour of reform of the youth justice system. The story was picked
up by national radio as well as dozens of local stations across the
- Joint Community Care and Howard League fringe event at the
Liberal Democrat party conference in Bournemouth.
- Joint Community Care and Children’s Society fringe event at the
Labour party conference in Brighton. Guest speakers included Home
Office minister Paul Goggins.
- A parliamentary briefing at the House of Commons gave MPs and
others a chance to hear first hand accounts from young people and
staff working with offenders of their experience of the youth
justice system and what they thought could be done to reduce youth
- Back on Track conference. Chair of the Youth Justice Board Rod
Morgan told the meeting he supported Community Care’s
- Launch of A Lost Generation, published by Community Care and
the Prison Reform Trust, supported by the Monument Trust. The
report slammed the government for neglecting young people in
custody and failing to invest sufficiently in prevention and
- Petition: More than 2,500 people signed up to our call for a
dramatic reduction in the number of young people in custody. It was
handed in at Downing Street this week (see picture, this page) and
Community Care deputy editor Janet Snell was interviewed by BBC