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
    action.

    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
    licence.

    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
    offenders.”

    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
    placements.

    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
    custody.

    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
    says.

    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
    there.”

    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
    asks.

    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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