Special report: young offenders to be placed in open settings

Back to borstals

You could almost predict the ‘back to borstals’ type tabloid headlines generated by the Youth Justice Board’s announcement that it will be looking at sending some young offenders to special residential schools last week.

In reality residential schools are just one of a number of options the YJB is exploring in a move to place young offenders who do not require high security within open or less secure types of accommodation.

The other types of provision being considered include open sections of secure children’s homes, therapeutic communities, mental health settings and open children’s homes.

Under open arrangements children and young people have their own keys to their rooms or cells and are free to come and go as they please but at present only 60 open beds are provided in one YOI. The Board says that a change in the law will be required to enable other open accommodation to be provided outside YOIs and that this may be included in the forthcoming sentencing and youth justice bill.


Frances Crook, director of youth justice charity The Howard League for Penal Reform welcomed the proposals as she thought it would make the system much more “flexible”.Frances Crook

“It’s finding the appropriate response for that particular child as you would for your own child,” she said.

Crook added that she would particularly like to see an expansion of intensive fostering schemes where young offenders go to live with families in their homes, as they had proved highly successful for some young people.

Like Crook Chris Chaston, senior policy officer at disadvantaged young people’s charity Rainer, supports the proposals for providing a much greater range of options for where young offenders can be held. For him the key issue is that the accommodation on offer deals with treating young people’s needs rather than simply locking them up.

Crime reduction charity Nacro is most concerned with reducing the number of young people in custody and Chris Stanley, head of Nacro’s Youth Crime Section, said that this underlies their take on the proposed measures. While the YJB proposes a cut of the number of young people in custody by 10 per cent, or 270 places, between March 2005-March 2007 Nacro would like to see a 50 per cent reduction within the next 2-3 years.

Stanley argues that only young people who have committed serious crimes should be in custody and that if this was the case the YJB’s proposals would not be required.

Chaston and Stanley both agree that there are a number of young people currently in the secure estate who could safely be living in the community with no threat to the public or themselves. Chaston argues that technological developments, such as tagging, have made this argument even stronger.


The Board’s proposals are part of its new strategy on the secure estate for children and young people that aims to ‘improve, diversify and modernise’ the accommodation and services young offenders receive.

Another new proposal is the creation of smaller scale accommodation units within YOI for 200-300 older boys who require intensive staff support but who cannot be put in Secure Training Centres or secure children’s homes with younger or less mature children.

Chaston sees this as a positive idea as it is providing young people with tailored support. “We would support anything that involves the development of the secure estate that is needs driven rather than just being about containment because if you address those needs you have a more effective way of addressing the reasons for offending,” he said.

But Crook sees the move as incorrectly separating off a particularly troubled group. “It’s creating a prison in a prison,” she said. “What they are talking about are young men who have a severe mental health issue.”

Welsh children

The treatment of Welsh children is another area in line for improvement under the strategy. The document states the overwhelming majority of the 180-190 Welsh children and young people in custody are in establishments in England and proposes the creation of a mixed range of accommodation in Wales to address the issue.

The Board has also established a working group with the Welsh Assembly to consider how the needs of Welsh young people can be best met in custody.

The YJB also pledges to work with the Department of Health to provide better in-house mental health services for those who can be reasonably cared for in custody together with specialist care outside for those who need it. Crook describes the move as “essential” due to current provision being inadequate.

Chaston adds that better relationships with the Prison Service and health services will also benefit young offenders by helping to ensure that mental health services they receive inside carry on once they are released.

The strategy goes on to criticise local authorities for failing to provide significant numbers of looked after children in the secure estate with the services they are entitled to and pledges to tackle this in a ‘more coherent and holistic way’.


Crook describes this take on the problem as an “understatement” and says that the Howard League is currently in the process of trying to take 22 local authorities to judicial review for allegedly failing to adequately look after children in their care.

A questionnaire based on a draft of the strategy, which was put out to consultation in November 2004, was filled in by 1006 young people in secure accommodation.

This found that just over 60 per cent of the young people thought that closeness to home was more important than the quality of the establishment they were placed in. However, in the new strategy the YJB has maintained its policy that safety and regime quality at facilities should not be secondary to this.

“Ideally it should be both. We are all in the business of reducing reoffending. We shouldn’t be having to make either or decisions,” said Chaston.

Crook said that closeness to home was not always the most important factor as if a child was in a YOI they could be nearby but their family could only be able to visit them once every two weeks due to visiting rules. She added that this was compared to a local authority secure children’s home where they could receive visits every day and possibly have a telephone in their room.

Child-centred training

The consultation concludes that child-centred training for staff could be needed with one fifth of the children and young people saying that they feared harm from staff and nearly half did not rate their relationships with staff as positive.

Stanley said that working with young people in custody should be separated off into a separate profession to help better relationships to be developed. “We should have a dedicated profession and career ladder. Working with under-18s is completely different to adult work.”

Despite the negative headlines overall campaigners are positive about the strategy which the YJB says will be implemented over the next three years.

With the number of juveniles in custody rising to a three year high in a recent six-month-period, 2, 947 at the end of October, the changes can’t come quickly enough.

Strategy for the Secure Estate for Children and Young People from: www.youth-justice-board.gov.uk


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