Comment: Youth justice debate needs fresh thinking

The youth justice debate has been going round in circles for years, so now is the time to break with the past, writes Chris Wright

The numbers of young people in prison are threatening to swamp available places; public fear of youth crime is running high and government is casting around for new solutions. Welcome to London, 1806.

One of the lessons I’ve learned since moving from the Youth Justice Board to young people’s charity Rainer is that nothing is new. As we celebrate our 200th anniversary this year, it’s tempting to believe that society’s approach to youth justice has changed very little since we were established.

We have the highest number of young people in custody of any west European nation, at a cost of some £270m to the taxpayer. One of Rainer’s earliest annual reports from the 1800s pointed out to the home secretary that the charity’s work would benefit society financially, as well as in human terms: “the Offender’s Reformation being in every sense a far cheaper process than His repeated detection, trial and punishment”.

We know the crucial role that education, housing and employment play in reducing reoffending – yet inmates still have scandalous levels of illiteracy and hugely disrupted schooling. And rising populations in custody force staff to focus on security rather than education and training and so the cycle continues.

Part of the reason for all this is the role public opinion plays in shaping policy. I’d like to see the government lead the debate and take a risk.

One of the early pieces of guidance we produced at the YJB when establishing youth offending teams was the need for a multi-agency approach. The same should now be argued for the YJB – moving it out of the Home Office’s direct control to joint reporting to the Department for Education and Skills, Department for Communities and Local Government, Home Office and Cabinet Office.

It’s doubly important that we take a breath to examine which policies work and which have failed over the past two centuries.
After all, “those who don’t learn from their mistakes are destined to repeat them”.

Chris Wright, services director, Rainer

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