Newcastle Youth Offending Team has cut offending by young people. Craig Kenny examines how they have succeeded
“If I thought that custodial sentences solved the problem, I would be at the front of the queue,” says Rod Stapley (pictured right), manager of the youth offending team in Newcastle.
“However, we know that custody has an extremely poor record in reducing offending, and ‘boot camps’ are the least effective,” he says. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s five-year report found that the UK used custody for young people too often.
“The function of custody for me is for when everyone is exhausted – it gives everyone a breather,” he says.
YOTs work with all young offenders in a given area and also act as a gateway to the youth court.
Over the past two years, the Newcastle team has reduced the number of young people appearing in court by 8-10%, and over three years the number of first-time entrants into the youth justice system has been cut by more than 25% – five times the national target. This is how they tackled it:
Work intensively with the highest risk offenders
In 2006-7, only 34 of 2,698 disposals by the team ended in custodial sentences. “We are unusual for a city YOT as we have a low custody rate,” Stapley says.
That year, about 50 of the high-risk offenders were placed under an intensive supervision and surveillance programme (ISSP).
“The ISSP is our alternative to custody,” he says. “The programme is 25 hours a week, during which time they receive tailored interventions, which may include education and training, substance misuse work, structured leisure and counselling about their offending. They know that non-compliance means an immediate return to court.
“The police communicate with us weekly about what their view is, and we also update them, reporting progress, good and bad,” Stapley says. “We know that with young people who complete the programme their offending is 64% less in the year after the sentence compared with the year before.”
But this option is not open to violent offenders who are unwilling to work with the team and address the causes of their offending.
Divert young people from offending early
“The first thing we try to do is identify young people who are at risk early so that we can do something about it,” says Stapley.
The hope is that the earlier young people are diverted, the less contact they will have with the courts.
“A lot of our cases are at the lower end: referral orders, community reparation orders, and at police final warning level,” he says.
“Although we are reducing custody, we don’t oppose all use of custody. It’s a combination of the risk to the public of them re-offending and the young person’s motivation to work with us on a community sentence.”
Share intelligence with the police
“The police make a fortnightly analysis of city crime patterns, and they share a basic text of that with us so we are aware of where problems are emerging,” Stapley says. “If you are working with someone who has a history of criminal damage and the police identify criminal damage in the area they live in, then their case manager can pick that up in real time. We don’t make any accusations, but say you need to be aware that you might come under scrutiny.”
He also says that the YOT has to identify people at high risk of serious offending and share that assessment with police, so they can take account of it in policing.
Gain the confidence of your partners
Children’s services and the criminal justice system need to have confidence that the YOT is taking the right steps, says Stapley. “Our service to court is done by a dedicated court team, so that the court builds up a working relationship with four or five people who they learn to understand and trust. There’s an element of personal credibility built up.
“We get lots of feedback and have a very high uptake on our proposals of what disposal the court should consider (more than 90%). We get more commendations than brickbats, but are quite happy for them to disagree with us.”
Quarterly liaison meetings with magistrates are frank affairs. “We never just tell the magistrates the good cases,” he says. “We will use a case example that went well and one that didn’t go well and where it went wrong. It’s not a shop window.”
Stapley says the court team also regularly liaise with Crown Prosecution Service and defence lawyers. “We are careful about the quality of our reports to the court. When our court report goes in it includes a feedback form for magistrates, so court staff don’t have to scramble looking for a form under the desk.”
Involve the court with referral orders
The YOT also works closely with the court on referral orders. The court fixes the length of the order, and has some input into training a panel of community volunteers. The panel meets the offender, their parents and victims to agree on the content of the order.
Most other types of court orders are due to be replaced by a single youth rehabilitation order. “Our intention is to link that with the Youth Justice Board‘s scaled approach, which says the higher the risk, the greater the intervention,” says Stapley.