Post-Morgan agenda

Rod Morgan decided to jump before he was pushed. Ministers had already informed the chair of the Youth Justice Board that to continue he would have to re-apply for the role when it expired later this year.

Liberated from future responsibilities, Morgan decided it was time to expose the growing criminalisation of young people for minor offences. He chose Newsnight as his platform.

It has been a key aim of the Youth Justice Board to reduce the number of children and young people in custody by 10 per cent by 2008. And yet, despite this being incorporated in the Home Office’s five-year plan early last year, the number of under-18s in custody has continued to rise. In December, 2,841 young people were behind bars – 224 higher than 12 months earlier.

It is due to interpretations of criminal justice policy, and it is not a new problem. Morgan raised similar concerns in 2005, but the ministerial drive has been to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim.

We saw it again last week with the launch of the new Respect areas, when the government enthusiastically pointed to the proliferation of Asbos as a symbol of success in tackling antisocial behaviour rather than as the escalation towards custodial sentences that they can so easily be.

If our message last week was that local authorities needed to adopt a tiered approach to tackling antisocial behaviour – with Asbos as last resort – then this week’s is that the government needs to invest in an early, preventive approach. Last year, custody took a disproportionate 70 per cent of the board’s budget.

Any new appointee is going to struggle to improve outcomes for young offenders while the government of the day is desperately seeking affirmation from the electorate that it’s tough on juvenile crime.

Their first job should be to review our criminal justice policy for young offenders, agree a blueprint with the Home Office that better balances the need for education and enforcement, and then redirect more resource into prevention. But they also need to define what success is in this area. Morgan highlighted a 26 per cent rise in the number of children brought into the criminal justice system in the past three years – and that’s no measure of achievement.

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