Ministers are said to be struggling to agree on how far responsibility for youth justice could be devolved to local authorities if, as expected, the Youth Justice Board is disbanded next year.
A senior source close to the YJB said: “Government cannot risk custody levels rising so the mechanisms around this must be considered very carefully,” the source said.
Those in favour of devolved custody budgets believe this would offer councils incentives to invest in early intervention and encourage youth offending teams (YOTs) to present courts with more, and better, substitutes for prison.
However, children’s services directors are unconvinced. Colin Green, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ children, families and young people policy committee, expressed support for attempts to reduce the number of young people in custody. But he did not believe that “tinkering around the edges of the funding system will bring about the step-change that is required”.
He added: “The judiciary, rather than local authorities, decide whether a young person’s crime warrants a period in custody and so it is difficult to see how transferring the funding to local authorities will change these decisions. A tandem process, working with the judiciary to understand why so many young people are sentenced to custody and what alternatives could be provided, is also necessary if we are to reduce the number of young people imprisoned.”
Sources say many of the political and ideological issues surrounding youth crime will remain unchanged. One youth justice consultant said some councils, magistrates and MPs did not want to reduce custody rates, adding: “Prison may also work out cheaper than other responses, such as intensive fostering, local authority secure accommodation or placing children in care.”
He expressed concern over YOTs’ budgets and performance. “About one-third of a YOT’s budget comes from the YJB. This money is ring-fenced but, if it’s transferred to councils, who knows how it will be spent locally?
“The YJB is also responsible for monitoring YOTs. If there is no central body prescribing standards and driving improvements, there is a danger that some YOTs will fall away and standards will drop. This is more likely in deprived areas working with high numbers of the most vulnerable young people.”
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