Ethos of Youth Justice Board fails to fit with government policies

Last week Rod Morgan (pictured) told Community Care the resasons behind his resignation. This week he explains his differences with ministers over the use of custody for young people.

My resignation as Youth Justice Board chair in January arose out of my differences with ministers about two trends: the number of children and young people in custody and the numbers being criminalised.

I should emphasise that I consider the creation of the YJB in 1998 to have been one of New Labour’s most enlightened decisions. Youth justice is the only part of the criminal justice system that is genuinely devolved. Youth offending teams are locally managed and accountable. The YJB monitors their performance and advises ministers regarding it, but the steerage is light touch.

Local ownership

The consequence is that in youth justice, compared with other parts of the system such as probation, there is a real sense of local policy ownership and much positive grassroots innovation. Increasing work is being done with parents, with victims and on early preventive work with children at risk.

Moreover, a mixed economy of services has developed in which the voluntary sector is prominent. Members of the public, as adults, mentors and referral panel members, are extensively involved in support and decision-making capacities. Also, significant improvements have been made in the custodial sector since the YJB took over responsibility for commissioning in 2000.

But government policies have clashed with these measures. Policies include: the new statutory sentencing provisions for so-called dangerous offenders the introduction of more intensive community sentences and their tighter enforcement the failure to halt the decline in the use of low-tariff penalties such as fines and the application of the various antisocial behaviour measures.

There are currently near-record numbers of young people in custody with all the baleful consequences of system overcrowding – out-of-area placements, programme disruption, increased risks of self-harm and conflict, and so on.

There are, of course, some young offenders whose crimes are so serious or persistent that they must be taken out of circulation. But there are not twice as many of these offenders – the scale of the increase – as there were 15 years ago. And, regrettably, little has been said by ministers to encourage sentencers in the view that when dealing with children and young people they should apply a custody threshold fundamentally different from that for adults.

Prison population

Indeed, to employ their own language, ministers still don’t appear to get it. The immediate response to the recent London shootings was that longer, mandatory, custodial sentences be applied to young offenders.

The prisons crisis reflects the expansion of the system as a whole. During my three-year watch at the YJB there was a 26 per cent increase in the number of children and young people criminalised. A key driver of this trend is the government’s target to increase the number of offences annually brought to justice to 1.25 million by spring 2008.

The government boasts that the current number – about 1.4 million – is well ahead of target. But how is this figure being achieved? Not by prosecuting and convicting more serious offenders. On the contrary, the level of convictions in court has been steady.

The increase is almost entirely attributable to handing out more cautions and on-the-spot fines for minor offences, a high proportion of them the reprimands and final warnings given to juveniles.

To meet ministers’ expectations the police are choosing easy targets. Among the easiest is the group behaviour of teenagers in neighbourhoods, schools and care homes that used to be controlled informally, and could be more effectively and cheaply dealt with by such means still.

Arrest is not the only answer and criminal justice targets need to be related to the crime’s seriousness.

Discussion forum
Do you agree with Morgan’s assessment of the youth justice system? Go to
Discussion Forum to have your say



More from Community Care

Comments are closed.