This article considers the proposal to extend placement choice for children sentenced to custody, contained in the Offender Management Bill. The article addresses some of the misconceptions about the proposal and sets out the positive arguments for the change. It concludes that, although it is not a measure that will transform current arrangements, it will be a step in the right direction of reforming custody for children.
John Fayle clears up some misconceptions about the proposals in the Offender Management Bill, which will extend placement choice for children sentenced to custody
Several misunderstandings have emerged about the proposal to widen the placement options for children sentenced to detention and training orders (DTOs).
As the former head of policy for the juvenile secure estate at the Youth Justice Board, I was responsible for developing the proposal that now appears in the Offender Management Bill. Now it is time to put the record straight.
● MYTH 1: The measure is intended merely to open the possibility of ordinary children’s homes being used. Wrong. There are several types of placement that could be considered under the new arrangements.
● MYTH 2: It is a Home Office response to pressure on custodial places. In fact, the idea has been developed by the YJB for several years – during periods of high and low pressure on custody – for other reasons.
● MYTH 3: It is an attempt to save money. It is true that the alternative places will sometimes be cheaper, but they could also be more expensive than those the YJB now purchases. The placements are, however, likely to be better value, since they would be geared to the needs of the individual children and would not be wasting resources on an unnecessary high level of security or on children who are assessed not to need such security.
● MYTH 4: It signals a return to criminal care orders. Again, this is incorrect. Care legislation would be unaffected by these proposals. It would simply widen the scope of placements for children sentenced to custody.
The idea of extending placement choice has been developing in the YJB for some years and was clearly articulated in secure estate strategy in autumn 2005: “The YJB considers that some children and young people do not require the relatively high level of security that currently applies to all those held in the secure estateFor some children and young people, following careful assessment, open or less secure accommodation may be appropriateTypes of accommodation which could be considered are: open sections of secure children’s homes, residential special schools, therapeutic communities, mental health settings, open children’s homes. This development would depend on a change in the law, which the YJB expects may soon be achieved.”
Section 25 (7) (c) in the Offender Management Bill now going through parliament should give the required flexibility. The aim of this is to be able to place children sentenced to custody in facilities that more accurately meet their welfare needs. These placements are likely to reduce the chances of reoffending and should avoid wasting money on placements that have unnecessarily high security.
Anomalously, children convicted of grave crimes under sections 90-92 of Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 can be placed wherever the home secretary may direct. This power is seldom used, but it would be sensible to extend it to children sentenced for less serious crimes.
Most children in custody are held in Prison Service accommodation (about 85 per cent of the 3,000 population). They are usually held in small cells, with a toilet in the corner. There will be thick walls and a secure window. There will be a locked door between them and the room outside. Between that outside room and the outside world, will be about three or four more locked doors and a high perimeter fence or wall. Even if the YJB target of spending 14 hours a day out of their cell is hit, it still means children will be in cells about 10 hours a day, although the chances of escape from the area outside the cell are remote.
Many of these children will be on a four-month DTO, so they will be inside for only two months. The average time inside is about four months. Before their sentence (unless it was preceded by a period of custodial remand) and after it, there will be none of these security measures. Is it really the case that all of these children need this extraordinary level of security during their sentence? They clearly do not.
This level of security consumes money that could be used on welfare measures. It is also likely that a physical environment so dominated by security affects the culture and priorities of the establishment. For example, despite the laudable attempts to introduce more child-welfare related training for child prisons (the seven-day juvenile awareness staff programme package is worthy but clearly insufficient), there is still more emphasis on security-related training (such as control and restraint) than welfare training.
Public protection should be the main reason for high security. Most young offenders do not fall into this category. The likelihood of reoffending will be reduced more by regimes that meet their welfare needs rather than those that focus on preventing an unlikely attempt to escape.
Some commentators are concerned that placing children sentenced to custody with looked-after children may stigmatise the latter. But this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of these populations of children, and the degree of overlap between them. About half of the children’s custodial population has been looked-after at some stage before incarceration. There is a huge overlap of the populations, and they have similar needs. This is not surprising since the risk factors underlying serious offending behaviour, and being looked-after, are similar, most importantly a history of serious maltreatment.
The inability of policymakers and planners to recognise these overlaps arises at least partly from the fact that responsibility for them falls under different government departments. Young offenders are the concern of the Home Office, while looked-after children and maltreated children are the responsibility of the Department for Education and Skills. It is difficult to see how properly integrated policy for these two groups can be achieved at a national level while this dichotomy continues to exist.
Unfortunately, the modest proposal in the Offender Management Bill to widen placement choice would not transform the current situation. The transfer of large numbers of children to more appropriate accommodation would not happen. The number of children affected would probably be small, not least because suitable placements in the required numbers do not exist. However, it would be a small step in the right direction.
In the longer term, it should unleash the commissioning potential of the YJB to diversify the estate. It is a measure which should be supported by all those who wish to bring more sense, coherence and humanity to the existing custodial arrangements for children.Jon Fayle was head of policy for the juvenile secure estate at the Youth Justice Board between 2002 and 2006. During that period he was author of the YJB publications The Strategy for the Secure Estate for Children and Young People and Managing the Behaviour of Children and Young People in the Secure Estate. Before working for the YJB, he was a senior manager at a local authority and was responsible for services for young offenders, looked-after children and child protection services. He is now a freelance consultant.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
Youth Justice Board, Strategy for the Secure Estate for Children and Young People. Plans for 2005-06 to 2007-08, 2005
This article appeared in the magazine under the headline “The place to be”