Youth Justice Board chair Rod Morgan is defiant in the wake of figures showing the number of young people in custody has hit a three-year high. “We are coping and we will cope,” he states. Number of under-18s in custody
But the facts suggest a huge struggle lies ahead.
Nearly 3,000 under-18s were locked up in young offender institutions, secure training centres and local authority secure children’s homes in England and Wales at the end of September, a rise of more than 10 per cent in the past six months.
Not since the early days of the government’s Street Crime initiative in 2002 have so many young people been deprived of their liberty. Unlike then, however, no one seems to be able to identify a precise reason for the increase.
Morgan says changes in prison numbers are often due more to “mood music” than specific initiatives, and says the rise cannot be attributed, as some have suggested, just to children breaching antisocial behaviour orders.
Preliminary YJB research shows that most young people sent to prison for breaching Asbos have also been convicted of other crimes, often serious, and have had prior custodial sentences.
Home Office statistics for September show a 5 per cent year-on-year rise in the number of under-18s handed immediate custodial sentences and a 15 per cent rise in the number on remand.
Drugs offences seem to have leapt – the number remanded for them has risen by more than a quarter and the number sentenced by one- third – and robbery continues to be a major factor, accounting for a quarter of custodial sentences.
But Morgan points out that this is a long-term trend and says he “can’t answer why [the number in custody] has risen as markedly as it has in the past four to five months”.
Julian Young, senior partner at the Westminster Law Partnership, is also unsure of the reasons, but suggests that young people could be committing more serious offences, such as supplying drugs or using weapons.
And Pauline Batstone, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, suggests the influence of drink and drugs is playing a part, as is the “populist message about locking up more people”.
The lack of hard data has prompted home secretary Charles Clarke to commission an urgent analysis of the prison population.
One certainty, however, is that the current situation is causing severe problems for the YJB and, therefore, many disadvantaged young people.
Unable to meet target
The secure estate for juveniles is operating with only around 2.5 per cent spare capacity, compared with the YJB’s target of 8-10 per cent, meaning it is unable to meet its goal of placing all young people within 50 miles of home. For instance, Morgan says young offenders from London are being sent as far away as Castington YOI in Northumberland.
“The distribution of beds does not fit very well with demand,” he adds. “Some parts of the country are net exporters of children and others are net importers. It’s not good for maintaining contact with family or supervisors, and means risks at all levels are increased.”
The demand for places also means some under-18s are being placed in beds in YOI wings that house young adults aged 18 to 21. And a handful of under-18s charged with or convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder, are even being held in high-security adult prisons.
The secure estate for juveniles will soon reach full capacity if the rise in the population continues at its current rate, so the YJB is putting contingency measures in place. These include placing more 18 year olds with older inmates and expanding women’s prisons to cope with the growing number of young females in custody.
The forthcoming YJB strategy for the secure estate will contain the principle that all children and young people should be placed in dedicated establishments with dedicated staff. However, it is difficult to see how, in the current climate, the YJB will be able to achieve this goal.
Its target of a 10 per cent reduction in the number of young people in custody by March 2007 from the October 2004 total of 2,700 also looks to be under serious threat.
The demand for beds is placing huge pressure on the YJB’s budget too. The lack of available, appropriate places in YOIs means it is buying welfare beds in local authority secure children’s homes in expensive spot purchases, having already filled the beds it contracts for young offenders. Beds in Laschs cost an average of about 190,000 a year per place, compared with 175,000 in STCs and 55,000 in YOIs.
Morgan admits the YJB is likely to overspend its budget for this year, and says this means it will either have to get more money from the government or cut costs elsewhere.
“If we have to buy more custodial places then the only reasonable response would be to increase our budget to pay for it,” he says.
He says the YJB has already reduced its administrative and research costs, and is adamant that he does not want to cut the core grant it gives to the 156 youth offending teams in England and Wales. Morgan says this could potentially “destabilise” their relationships with the local partners, such as social services and police, that contribute the bulk of their funding.
Against this background, he is trying to raise awareness of the situation among sentencers throughout the youth justice system.
The YJB has run workshops for district judges and a major seminar for their crown court counterparts, and has also held talks with the Sentencing Guidelines Council about the increase in custodial sentences and inconsistency in sentencing around the country.
The SGC will shortly publish new guidance for consultation on the sentencing of people convicted of robbery offences, featuring a separate section on young people. And in the next year it will produce comprehensive guidelines for sentencing young people for the whole range of offences.
Morgan is also pushing the benefits of alternatives to custody, such as the intensive supervision and surveillance programme. Although this was recently criticised after an evaluation found nine out of 10 young people were reconvicted within two years of finishing their programme (news, page 14, 3 November), it has reduced the frequency and seriousness of offending. And Morgan thinks it retains the judiciary’s confidence.
He speaks from a position of authority, having been a magistrate himself for 25 years. “Magistrates understand that if a young person has got into a pattern of offending and they have numerous other difficulties, the idea that there’s a magic bullet is facile,” he says. “They know they have to persist.”
He is backed by John Fassenfelt, chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s youth courts committee. The association is in talks with the Home Office and Department for Constitutional Affairs about running regional conferences on alternatives to custody, but Fassenfelt says magistrates are having to contend with mixed messages from the government.
He also says community orders must be backed with more money if they are to succeed.
The government’s long-awaited Sentencing and Youth Justice Bill, which is expected soon, is likely to contain provision for intensive supervision and surveillance as part of a menu of options within community orders, making it a serious sentencing option for the courts.
Although Morgan is adamant that the YJB is coping, it will have its work cut out unless there is more use of alternatives to custody and more money to back its drive to prevent crime and reduce re-offending among young people.
Number of under-18s in custody
(Source: Home Office)