The lost generation

Changes in the way the youth justice system treats offenders
aged under 18 have meant that they are now better off, but concerns
remain about the welfare of 18 to 20-year-olds. Anabel Unity Sale
reports on why youth justice organisations are demanding

Two names set the pulse of the tabloid press racing last month:
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

As 10-year-olds the pair had abducted and killed two-year-old
James Bulger. Now, after spending eight years in two local
authority secure units, they are being released on life

While some tabloids bayed for their blood, one of the reasons
behind the parole board’s decision to release them was completely
overlooked. Last autumn, Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf recommended
that it was not in their, or the public’s interest, to be
transferred to what he described as the “corrosive atmosphere” of a
young offenders institution.

Lord Woolf is not the only one unhappy with the regimes in the
country’s 11 institutions. While conditions for under-18s may have
improved, there are widespread concerns that the changes have taken
place at the expense of 18 to 20-year-old offenders.

Aware of the criticisms that the changes have led to different
quality regimes for young offenders, the government’s 2001
manifesto pledged to address the needs of young offenders in the 18
to 20-year-old age bracket. The manifesto says: “We will build on
our youth justice reforms to improve the standard of custodial
accommodation and offending programmes for 18 to 20-year-old young

The youth justice arena changed radically when the the Youth
Justice Board was set up under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
Since 1 April last year it has been responsible for placing in
secure facilities young people on remand or those who have been
convicted. The board also controls the budget for all secure

Under the act, detention and training orders (DTOs) replaced
custodial sentences for all 12 to 17-year-olds. Now convicted
offenders spend half their sentence in a custodial setting and the
other half in the community under the close supervision of youth
offending teams, which were established three years ago.

But incarcerated young people aged between 18 and 20 greatly
outnumber the under-18s. On 31 January this year there was a total
of 8,240 18 to 20-year-old offenders in custody. In 21 March of
this year there were 2,789 young offenders aged under 18 in

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, describes the
regime for 18 to 20-year-old offenders as “impoverished”. She says:
“The primary issue is that 18 to 20-year-old young offenders are a
lost generation. This is the direct result of youth justice reforms
and increased resources for under-18-year-olds in prison.”

Lyon says a new approach urgently needs to be developed to deal
effectively with 18 to 20-year-old young offenders. “There must be
much more intervention, supervision and surveillance of them,” she

The focus on resources for younger offenders is also leading to
staff gravitating towards them, she says. “Staff who work with
young offenders are going to work with the under-18s because in the
18 to 20 regime they are not motivated as the resources are not

The prison service could stop this, she argues, and reduce the
age group’s high reoffending rates by launching a specific category
for 18 to 20-year-old offenders. “If the prison service is to
succeed in preventing reoffending then it must create age
appropriate regimes for young adults because they are still in
transition from childhood to adulthood.”

She adds: “It is a really important time for a second chance. If
it does not happen a young offender’s criminal identity will be
confirmed by imprisonment because they will be the next set of
adults in prison.”

Lyon is hesitant to praise the progress of the Youth Justice
Board so far, but she says it should extend its remit to cover 18
to 20-year-olds if the prison service fails to cater for them.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform,
also blames the plight of 18 to 20-year-old offenders on the youth
justice system reforms.

She says: “The Crime and Disorder Act left 18 to 20-year-old
offenders in a virtual reality because they are still being
sentenced to young offenders institutions, which is an anomaly. The
question is whether they are adults or older young offenders? No
one knows what to do with them.”

She adds: “Resources have been diverted and put into the younger
age group of offenders, which is right and just, but it has been
done at the expense of the older young offenders.”

Crook does not agree that an 18-year-old should be classified as
adult and sent to an adult prison. “An 18-year-old is not the same
as a 45-year-old in prison. An 18-year-old is not emotionally or
intellectually mature which is often why they are in prison in the
first place,” she says.

She also supports the creation of a new category for prisoners –
one covering those aged between 18 and 25 – complete with an
appropriately-targeted regime. And, she says, building more prisons
for this age group is not the answer: “I am loath to say there
should be more resources and taxpayers’ money spent on building
more young offenders institutions when the majority of young
offenders should not be there in the first place.”

Crook hopes that tackling this issue will be high up on home
secretary David Blunkett’s “things to do” list. “I am very
optimistic that the new Home Secretary is going to be much more
sensible than any of his predecessors,” she says.

The consequences of setting up the new regime for offenders
under 18 have been “traumatic”, argues National Association of
Probation Officers assistant general secretary Harry Fletcher.

He says: “All the evidence is that the prison service has
transferred resources into juvenile estates at the expense of 18 to
20-year-old institutions.”

He adds: “There is priority for assistance for under-18-year-old
offenders but beyond that the institutions are based on a
warehousing model.”

Fletcher does not believe an offender should be “lumped together
with adult prisoners” the moment they turn 18. He says: “They need
a separate regime based on education, training and rehabilitation.
They should not be treated like adult prisoners.”

He would be happy for the Youth Justice Board to cover young
offenders up to the age of 20 if the necessary resources were
available. “If the transfer of responsibility for 18 to
20-year-olds went to the board it would only be beneficial if it
improved conditions. Otherwise what would the point be?” he

Peter Edmundson, head of the prison service’s 18 to 20-year-old
policy section, says changes in the regime for offenders under 18
highlights the government’s commitment to tackling this group’s
high reoffending rates.

But while these changes have had a positive impact on younger
offenders’ experience inside young offenders institutions, he
concedes that the same approach has yet to be adapted for offenders
in the18 to 20 age group. He says: “We are doing what we can with
the resources we have and hope to do more when additional money
becomes available. No matter how much you do you always hope you
can do more.”

Edmundson remains optimistic about the future for young
offenders. “The prison service has shown that it can deliver on the
under-18-year-old and with the government’s manifesto commitment to
do more for the 18 to 20-year-old age group I am positive and
upbeat that we can deliver for them as well,” he says.

Youth Justice Board chairperson Lord Warner says he is
“extraordinarily well aware” of the sector’s views on the situation
for 18 to 20-year-old offenders. Unsurprisingly, he denies that
these are as a result of his work.

“There is mythology going around that the wicked Youth Justice
Board has taken money away from 18 to 20-year-old offenders, but it
just isn’t true. We were given additional money to improve the
quality of the regimes for the under-18s. If things were bad for 18
to 20-year-offenders, they were bad before,” he says.

In order to stop prison staff moving away from working in
regimes for 18 to 20 year offenders in favour of the under-18s, he
suggest “trying to make work with them more attractive”. He urges
this should not be done at the expense of the quality of the
under-18s programme.

This would be more popular with the prison service than the
creation of a new category of young prisoner, and therefore a new
body: “On the principle of better the devil you know the prison
service would prefer to deal with one body. They would find it
difficult to deal with two commissioning bodies.”

So what about increasing the board’s remit to include 18 to
20-year-old offenders? Lord Warner says he would not be averse to
the home secretary suggesting this, but stresses the idea would
have to come from David Blunkett first. He says: “Providing the
resources were there we would be pleased to help.”

So, it seems that all Blunkett needs to do to sort out the
problem for older young offenders is whisper four little words:
“Extend the board’s remit.” It remains to be seen if the phrase is
in his vocabulary.

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