Treatment of young offenders denounced by coalition

Groups from across the social services spectrum have come
together to suggest alternative solutions to the heavy-handed
approach of the government towards young offenders Natalie Valios

The increasingly punitive measures used by the government to
deal with young offenders, backed by the public’s hardening
attitude towards juvenile crime, have been denounced in a
discussion document examining youth justice services.

At last week’s launch, a unique collaboration between the
Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan
Authorities, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the
National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and
the Association of Chief Officers of Probation argued for
community-based options.

According to the report: ‘Punitive approaches are not likely to
be vote-winners if the tax payer understands the true costs and the
poor outcomes.’

Conservative peer Baroness Faithfull said a history of Home
Office research from the 1980s shows that locking up children does
not work. ‘There has to be local authority-run secure accommodation
for the few who need it, so they are near their homes and parents
can be involved,’ she said.

Secure accommodation should only be used as a last resort, when
there is no other alternative. It should not be considered as part
of mainstream responses to young offenders, claims the report.

‘Secure training centres are expensive and ineffective,’ said
Tim Brown, secretary of the ADSS children and families

Mary Honeyball, general secretary at ACOP, said locking up young
offenders doesn’t achieve what it’s meant to, because reconviction
rates are high. There is a tremendous tendency to demonise
children, “Ratboy” for example. This is inappropriate and wrong,’
she said.

More focus must be put on crime prevention policies. Brown said:
‘We have been less successful in developing overall strategies
preventing children getting into trouble in the first place.’

John Harding, chief probation officer, inner London, agreed:
‘Too much money has been spent on custodial settings, too little on
crime prevention,’ he said.

Helen Edwards, director of policy, research and development at
NACRO, argued that prison was not the answer but a sign of failure.
‘We have to be prepared to invest in young people and that doesn’t
just mean more prisons,’ she said.

The report had to be built on in a way that genuinely offered
people protection from crime, she added.

The changing attitude towards juvenile justice, the introduction
of secure training centres and more young people on remand, was
going to make it ‘an uphill job’, claimed Brian Jones, the AMA’s
assistant secretary for social services. Collaboration between
social services, education, housing, youth services, the social
security system and health authorities is of the essence. The local
authority is seen as the co-ordinator in bringing together all
agencies involved with young offenders.

But public concerns and the victims of crime must not be pushed
aside either.

The report called for a radical re-think, including
reconsidering the age of criminal responsibility; the role of
prison custody for young people; and the place of courts in the
decision-making process.

Proposals included creating local forums to lead and co-ordinate
local developments; setting minimum standards for the range of
services and the time taken to decide which are necessary; ensuring
decisions are made at administrative meetings, professionally based
conferences or in courts.

The report called for services to span family support, and
supervision by probation staff, as well as increasing local
authorities’ capacity to develop crime prevention initiatives.

· A Future Of Youth Justice Services, available from ACC
Publications on 0171 201 1500.

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