Last Friday, when Ed Balls, the new Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, stated that every Asbo handed down represented a failure, he sounded a significant, long-awaited policy shift.
For years, those working with children and young people in trouble and their families have argued that the divide between children in need and children who offend is a false and damaging one. This myopia has forced policy down unconnected tracks: one concerned with care, the other punishment. The result? A doubling of the young prison population in 12 years and the surest way to fuel future adult jail numbers.
Who have we caught in this ever-expanding custodial net? Young prisoners are far more likely than other young people to have slept rough, used illegal drugs, engaged in hazardous drinking and become early parents. Almost half will be care leavers. Many have experienced domestic violence and sexual abuse. Today there are almost 12,000 young people aged 15 to 20 in jail in England and Wales. One in 10 will be suffering from a severe psychotic illness compared with 0.2% of the general population. Around two-thirds of all young prisoners experience anxiety and depression.
On every measure most young offenders are in need and at risk, to themselves as well as to others. But from the time they start offending, their chances of social care, education, mental health and drug or alcohol treatment in the community fall away. In the absence of alternatives, courts resort to custody. Despite clear evidence from SmartJustice and Victim Support that crime victims favour community solutions, far too often prison gets used as a dumping ground for young people.
Now it’s time, painstakingly, to retrace our steps and forge an intelligent, integrated response to children and young people in trouble. Re-aligning responsibility for the Youth Justice Board between two new departments, Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice, is an important start.
Over the next five years, the Prison Reform Trust, generously supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, will drive a year on year reduction in the number of children and young people received into custody – each one, in Ed Balls’ terms, representing a collective failure.