As prison overcrowding reaches a record high, the government is starting to consider more alternatives to custody.
Home Secretary Charles Clarke recently promised more community sentences for low-tariff offenders, and put a broader emphasis on rehabilitation as a way to reduce re-offending.
But last week, the government’s flagship community sentencing scheme for young offenders came under fire.
A report by the Youth Justice Board on the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) found that nine out of 10 people were reconvicted within two years, causing a storm of reaction.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, called the figures “an utter disgrace” but the Youth Justice Board defended the scheme.
The YJB called the figures “not surprising” as their study showed young offenders on the scheme had committed an average of 11.6 offences in the previous 24 months.
Is the ISSP working?
John Fassenfelt, chair of the youth courts committee at the Magistrate’s Association, which represents around 29,000 volunteer magistrates, says courts are still confident in the ISSP as an alternative to custody.
“It is still seen as a viable option, as it reduces the degree and frequency of offending among the most prolific young offenders. When dealing with this kind of young person, you can’t expect offending to stop overnight,” he says.
“It needs to be recognised that schemes like the ISSP are a harder option. In custody, young people don’t have to take part in anything – they can sit in their cells all day. But on the ISSP they have to take part.”
The ISSP, first introduced in 2001, lasts six months and contains a surveillance element, usually electronic tagging, and attendance at a variety of offending-related programmes including education for 25 hours a week, dropping to five hours a week after three months.
The Youth Justice Board defended the ISSP as the “most robust” community-based programme for those aged under-18, saying it was “always unlikely” that persistent young offenders would cease offending completely as a result of the ISSP.
At an average cost of £12,000 per person, the scheme is also cheaper than custody.
The current cost of a place for a year in a local authority secure children’s home is around £192,154, while a place at a secure training centre is £174,550 and a place in a young offender institution is around £55,075, according to the latest YJB estimates.
The YJB’s report states the objective of the ISSP is to reduce the frequency and seriousness of offending, rather than end offending altogether.
The YJB’s evaluation of 41 pilot ISSPs found frequency of offending went down by 40 per cent over one year and by 39 per cent over two years, while the seriousness of any further offending went down by 13 per cent in both one and two years after ISSP.
The study, conducted by Oxford University for the YJB, concluded that both these figures “well exceeded” the YJB’s ISSP target of a five per cent reduction in frequency and seriousness of offending since the scheme was introduced.
A lack of resources has been highlighted as one of the main barriers to ensuring that ISSPs can succeed on a wider level.
Pauline Batstone, chair of the association of youth offending team managers, says more money is needed to buy “face-to-face” time with young people – a key factor in achieving good results with ISSPs.
During the final phase of the national roll-out of ISSPs, it was claimed that some youth offending teams only got around £4,000 to run the scheme, including a number of shire counties where costs were higher than urban areas.
Batstone also cites problems with the high costs of putting in place good weekend schemes and making staff available “24/7”.
John Fassenfelt points to the “restricted” number of ISSPs in areas such as London as a barrier to putting more people onto the scheme.
Need for more input
The YJB’s report also found a lack of statutory resources was hindering ISSP staff from being able to provide a comprehensive package of support for young offenders.
While the report found that restorative justice and constructive leisure activities led to “significant” reductions in offending frequency, resources were “variable” across the country.
It said the “vast majority” of ISSP staff found poor statutory services in their areas were “critically undermining” their ability to meet the needs of young people with the most severe problems.
The YJB found over a quarter of young offenders on ISSPs had no main source of educational provision, with just 19 per cent attending a mainstream school.
Over half were subject to inconsistent parental supervision and three in 10 had experienced abuse.
Young offenders on ISSPs also experienced high levels of unemployment, drug misuse and self-harm.
Batstone points to a “reluctance” on the part of some services to contributing to ISSP provision, saying they do not want to be involved in the enforcement process.
Youth justice organisations also have long-running concerns about high thresholds, especially in children’s services, in order to access resources for young people aged 16 and 17.
Ellie Roy, chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, called for more mainstream resources for young offenders to help reduce re-offending.
“Young people finishing the ISSP may be placed in unsuitable accommodation or become homeless. They may be excluded from school or have mental health problems that go unaddressed,” she says.
“Statutory services are not getting involved because they are under pressure and face difficult choices over how to spend resources.”
The YJB’s report concluded that while differences in local provision, resources and opportunities were not “so easily and readily improved,” improvements in this area would make a “significant” contribution to reducing re-offending.
It said: “If additional improvements could be achieved in dealing with substance abuse and accommodation needs, as well as in mental health diagnosis and treatment, then an even greater impact may be made on the future criminal careers of such persistent and serious offenders.”