The government proposals on youth offending have received a mixed reception. Claire Seneviratna assesses the reaction of care professionals and service bodies to the plans
It is fair to say that the reaction of practitioners to the government’s long-awaited Youth Crime Action Plan has been mixed since its publication last month. While some see it as an opportunity missed, others have lauded the government for a restrained, gimmick-free approach.
The draft plan places more responsibility on councils for reducing the number of young people entering custody, increasing education and training, and bolstering resettlement support, but, crucially, stops short of giving authorities control over the relevant purse strings.
Jointly published by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, and Jack Straw, the justice secretary, the plan calls for more investment in non-custodial sentences, involving intensive fostering and community supervision of young offenders. There are also proposals for a significant extension of family intervention projects – schemes used to provide “non-negotiable intervention” to families whose children are at greatest risk of falling into a life of crime.
These proposals and many others will be implemented over the next three years at a cost of £100m. The overall aim is to slash the 100,000 children aged 10- to 17-years-old who enter the criminal justice system each year. Under the plan, the government wants to cut this by one fifth by 2020.
Mike Thomas, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, echoes the response of many practitioners in the field when he says: “While we welcome the direction of the plan, it doesn’t go far enough. The key issue of who should bear the cost of custody has been fudged. We are disappointed that the plan doesn’t propose transferring the costs of custody away from the Youth Justice Board onto local authorities. We felt this would have made councils sit up and take notice it would have given them a strong incentive to find alternatives.
“The way the system works at the moment actually discourages local authorities from looking at more effective alternatives, because as soon as a young person enters custody, the council no longer has to cover the costs.”
Andrew Webb, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ lead on youth justice, and director of children’s services at Stockport Council, calls on practitioners not to get “bogged down on who pays what”, and insists that children’s services should already be offering a creative, considered response to youth crime.
Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point, agrees: “I’ve seen success when the best youth offending teams have worked hand-in-hand together in partnership. It’s not just about money. What is most important is that local professionals make sure that they are not working in silos and build services around the needs of local communities.”
Overall, Webb heralds the plan as a “positive, thoughtful and evidence-informed piece of policy”.
“It achieves a balance between enforcement and prevention and takes a much more reflective view of antisocial behaviour and youth crime,” he adds.
However, he is concerned about the lack of emphasis on reducing the number of young people entering custody in the first place.
“It’s about us working with the government to find ways of achieving an overall shift in resources – from a punitive regime to a preventative one,” he says.
Most observers agree that the plan gives local authorities a positive and increased role in supporting young people once they leave custody, including education, help with housing and finding work.
Thomas says: “Ensuring that young people have somewhere suitable to live once they leave custody can prove critical in preventing reoffending. At the moment it’s all too easy for young people to fall through the gap.”
Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Programme to reduce child and youth imprisonment, says another omission from the plan is specific measures for local authorities to supervise looked-after children better.
“At least a third of young offenders are in the care of a corporate parent – their local authority. The local authority as parent lets these children escalate through the criminal justice system into custody,” she says.
Camden’s Youth Disorder Engagement Team
Camden youth disorder team provides blueprint
Highlighted in the government’s plan as an example of good practice, Camden’s Youth Disorder Engagement Team could become a blueprint for the way local authorities deal with young people’s offending behaviour.
Working in partnership with the police, and related agencies including the Youth Engagement Team, Safer Neighbourhood Team, Youth Offending Team, social services, truancy patrol, schools and youth clubs, Nakuja Guyan and Scott Fry are at the frontline of this pioneering approach (pictured right).
The street-based trained intervention workers regularly patrol the borough. They get to know local young people and respond to incidents, as well as taking proactive measures to prevent problems arising.
“We recently managed to resolve a long-running feud between two young people,” says Los Angeles-native Guyan. “The dispute had been going on for five years and the parents of both youngsters become involved. Fry and I visited both families and everyone agreed to take part in mediation. Following the mediation, which was also attended by a police officer, both boys came to an agreement and signed a contract. There hasn’t been any trouble since and that was all achieved within three weeks of us becoming involved.”
Fry adds: “One of the mothers contacted us to say that this was the most that had happened in the five years she’d been asking for help.”
What marks the Camden pilot out is the experience of the intervention workers. Fry and Guyan have been employed partly because of their backgrounds: Fry worked for eight years in a juvenile detention centre in Australia before joining Camden’s YOT in 2003, while Guyan, once a member of a Los Angeles gang, has almost 20 years’ experience working with young people in juvenile detention centres and children’s homes in the US.
With two colleagues joining the team later this month, the team is set to extend its reach across the borough.
“What we’re doing in Camden could work just about anywhere, and not just where gangs are concerned, but all young people. The key is to build a multi-agency partnership where everyone is working from the same information and to the same agenda,” says Fry.
One young offender, 20-year-old Taylor*, says Fry is “someone I can trust that really cares”.
After an arrest, Taylor was referred to Fry through the Camden project. “He came round to my house and calmed my family down and made us feel safe. He gave me advice about how to avoid trouble and even signed me up to a gym, which gave me something to do.”
Taylor says the key to Fry’s approach is that he is a “neutral force who comes in and calms everything down”.
* Not his real name
This article appeared in the 31 July issue under the headline “Verdict on Youth Crime Action Plan”