Board chief says proposal would cut imprisonment but Association of Directors of Children’s Services remains hostile
The Youth Justice Board’s budget for youth custody could be devolved to councils in England and Wales to drive down custody numbers, its chief executive has confirmed.
The idea was floated for inclusion in the government’s Youth Crime Action Plan, published last July, but was reportedly dropped by ministers because of opposition from councils.
However, in an interview with Community Care, YJB boss John Drew (pictured) said the idea was still on the table and the board was waiting for the “green light” from ministers to pilot it.
But he added that it “would not be imposed” on councils. Further details on the possible pilots could be announced next month.
Drew said that devolving the budget – worth £305m in 2007-8 – would encourage authorities to invest in alternatives to custody, including intensive fostering, in turn giving magistrates greater confidence in community sentencing.
Campaigners have long argued that councils have no incentive to support children in care or in need from entering custody because they do not meet the costs of imprisonment.
While Drew admitted that there would always be a “certain number” of young people in custody due to the serious nature of their offences, he suggested the majority could be effectively dealt with in the community.
Drew also indicated that the secure estate for young people could be shrunk, following the YJB’s recent decision to cut the number of secure home beds it funds.
He said there were currently 500 vacant beds across the estate, adding: “No public body can afford this.”
In response, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that while it supported cutting custody numbers, devolving the budget was a “simplistic solution”.
Youth crime lead Andrew Webb said it implied councils were responsible for custody numbers, adding: “The ultimate decisions about sentencing will still be taken by the courts and influenced by other factors including police activity and community feeling.”
Webb, director of children’s services at Stockport Council, added: “If it was simply a case of influencing young people’s behaviour [in the community] to ensure they would receive the lowest level of court disposal, the YJB would have done this years ago. They haven’t managed because it’s too difficult.”
Webb also questioned how money would be allocated, predicting that small local authorities with two or three high-profile cases “could end up overspending” with extra costs being met from other children’s services budgets.
Webb said directors would welcome further discussions, but added: “Unless this is done as part of a comprehensive review of the use of custody it will be simplistic. We must get magistrates and ACPO [the Association of Chief Police Officers] round the table.”
But Webb agreed that shutting down parts of the secure estate would be “a good idea” if money was reinvested into community alternatives.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s strategy to reduce child and youth imprisonment, said she would be “delighted” if the custody budget was devolved to councils.
She added this would require “regular dialogue” between councils and youth offending teams, and compulsory training for magistrates on community sentencing.
But Gibb also warned the move should not be a “cost-saving exercise” for the government.