Investment in youth justice reforms flops as study shows offending teams are struggling to cope
Most of Labour’s flagship targets to tackle youth crime have been missed despite huge investment in services and radical reform in the past 10 years, experts warned this week.
An independent audit of youth justice under Labour found that wide-ranging reforms including the creation of youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board in 1998 have had “mixed” outcomes.
While youth justice has received the largest increase in spending of all the main criminal justice agencies excluding probation – 45% in real terms since 2000-1 – more children have been criminalised and imprisoned, the study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies found.
Youth offending teams have “struggled” to meet the complex needs of children and young people and the system has collectively failed to meet Labour’s headline target of reducing reoffending. Nearly all other targets including reducing use of custody and meeting accommodation, education, substance misuse and mental health needs have fallen short.
Since 2002, actual spending on the youth justice system in England and Wales has totalled £2.9bn, including a total spend in 2006-7 of £648.5m.
Significant investment was drawn from social care, health and education, but custody rather than prevention had the “lion’s share”, the audit found. Of the Youth Justice Board’s budget, 64% went on custodial places and just 5% on prevention in 2006-7.
The audit’s authors, Enver Solomon and Richard Garside, called for a reappraisal of the system, arguing that “fundamental questions” needed to be asked about whether youth justice agencies could really address the causes of youth offending. They suggested that more effective solutions could be found outside the youth justice system through mainstream local authority children’s services.
Solomon accused the government of setting “too high expectations” of the youth justice system. He said: “The government’s record on youth crime and tackling the multiple needs of children caught up in the system is less than impressive than many would have expected following a wide-ranging programme of reform and substantial investment.
In response, the YJB said the audit “failed to acknowledge” some significant improvements delivered by the YJB and youth justice services. It said a 5% reduction in first-time entrants to the youth justice system was “on course” to be achieved, and cited a 17% fall in the frequency of reoffending between 2000 and 2005.
Frances Done, chair of the YJB, said: “We deal with some of the most troubled and troublesome children in the country – there is no simple or easy solution – but great strides have been made in the community and in custody to hold young people to account for their actions and to protect the public.”
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