Where is the evidence?

The government would do well to wait for evidence of the
effectiveness of its youth crime prevention initiatives before
rushing ahead with new plans, writes Sarah Wellard.

In the wake of the acquittal of the teenagers tried for the
murder of Damilola Taylor and with street crime seeming to rise
exponentially, the government, desperate to be seen to be doing
something, has set out a variety of proposals for cracking down on
young offenders.

Many of these, like the extension of the use of custody for
children awaiting trial for non-serious offences, and the plans for
docking benefit from parents of antisocial and truanting
youngsters, cause many professionals working with children and
young people to throw up their hands in horror.

The UK is now locking up more, and younger, children tan ever
before, despite all the evidence that custody rarely serves to
reduce their offending. Whatever kind of custodial regime used,
around 80 per cent of young people are reconvicted within a few
years of their release. And there’s no evidence that punishing
parents for their children’s behaviour helps either.

But despite all the gloom, there’s another story to tell about
the government’s record on youth crime. Over the past three years a
raft of initiatives has been aimed at diverting young people from
crime before they ever make it to court.

John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of
Adolescence, believes that the most important step taken by the
government is the commitment to end child poverty in a generation.
“This is enormously significant. We know poverty is the number one
risk factor for offending,” he says. Although the proportion of the
UK’s children living in poverty is still among the highest in the
developed world, the numbers are slowly coming down, with half a
million lifted above the poverty line since 1997.

As well as the drive to tackle social and environmental causes
of crime, there’s also a plethora of early intervention programmes
aimed at supporting individual children and families. Some of
these, such as Sure Start and initiatives under the Children’s
Fund, have a broad range of social objectives aimed at breaking the
cycle of under-achievement and limited opportunities which can lead
to unemployment, poor health or crime.

In contrast, the On Track multiple intervention programme has
the more focused aim of reducing the likelihood that four to
12-year-olds judged at risk will become young offenders. Launched
by the Home Office in 1999, On Track has since been incorporated
into the Children’s Fund and is now being piloted on 22 deprived
estates across the country. Dorsey Precht, manager of a programme
in Northampton, says: “Children might be identified with behaviour
problems in reception class. They might be withdrawn and lacking in
social skills, or showing a pattern of unauthorised absences and
arriving late to school.”

The Northampton scheme runs open-access programmes such as
parenting skills for anyone in the neighbourhood who wants to
participate. But it also provides individually tailored support for
families whose children have been identified as at risk.
Participation is voluntary. Precht describes the programme to
parents as “helping your children to stay out of trouble when
they’re older. We aim to work alongside families and build parents’
self-confidence,” she says. Which is very different to the kind of
punitive approach now being canvassed by the government.

Most of the initiatives aimed at teenagers are overseen by the
Youth Justice Board (YJB), established in 1998 with the remit of
preventing youth crime. These include youth inclusion programmes
(YIPs) for 13 to 17-year-olds run on 70 of the country’s worst
crime hotspots which combine a youth work approach with individual
mentoring, and holiday “Splash” schemes in over 100 areas. The
board also supports restorative justice schemes aimed at getting
young people to face up to the consequences of their behaviour, and
drug and alcohol and cognitive-behavioural programmes. The much
vaunted parenting orders for “out-of-control” youngsters also fall
into the YJB’s remit.

The YJB has commissioned a series of extensive evaluations on
the effectiveness of these programmes, and there is speculation
that publication of the results may have been delayed because they
are not as positive as the board would have liked. Hardly
surprising, perhaps, given the pressure on the government to
deliver. Also, many of the initiatives are at the cutting edge of
practice development, so there is likely to be a steep learning

Even so, preliminary findings published in November1
are encouraging. For example, domestic burglaries fell by 27 per
cent during the summer of 2000 in areas served by Splash activity
schemes, compared with a national fall of 8 per cent. And in a
small-scale study of parents attending parenting programmes,
whether voluntarily or compulsorily through orders, most rated
their course as “very helpful”.

Another key element of the government’s prevention strategy is
the establishment of multi-agency youth offending teams (YOTs) in
every council in England and Wales. As well as providing support to
young people subject to court orders or receiving final warnings
from the police, YOTs run schemes aimed at preventing young people
from falling into crime in the first place such as Splash
programmes during school holidays. They should also work closely
with Connexions services to identify children at risk.

The YJB’s preliminary findings indicate that YOTs’ effectiveness
is critical to the success of other crime prevention initiatives.
For example, a close relationship between YOTs and magistrates
encourages courts to use parenting orders more frequently, and
strong links between YOTs and drug and alcohol programme providers
improve programme take up. Coleman says: “Some YOTs are working
better than others. It depends on what was there before [the YOT
was set up] and partly on leadership. It’s a big challenge for all
these professions to learn to work together.”

Chris Stanley, head of rehabilitation agency Nacro’s youth crime
section, says it’s too early to judge the new initiatives, but
experience from previous work suggest that they are very likely to
be successful. But he believes much more needs to be done. For
example, many of the programmes are area-based. This is fine if you
happen to be living in an area covered by a Children’s Fund
initiative or a YIP, but what about the millions of young people
living outside those areas?

Stanley says: “One of the key elements missing is what has
happened to the youth service. In opposition the government were
asking for it to be a statutory service but in fact things have got
worse. There is nothing for young people to do. What’s needed is a
well-funded service for all sorts of young people.”

And despite improvements in multi-agency working since the
establishment of YOTs, there are widespread concerns that the wider
welfare needs of young people in the criminal justice system and
those at risk of becoming offenders are not adequately addressed.
Stanley says: “Social services are already contributing about 60
per cent of YOT budgets. They are seconding youth justice workers
permanently into the YOT who are good at dealing with offending
behaviour but they aren’t linking back into children and family
services because the resources aren’t there. There’s no point
sorting out the offending problems if you just send children back
to where they were damaged in the first place.”

Barry Goldson, a social work lecturer at Liverpool University,
says that despite the government’s apparent emphasis on “what
works”, youth justice policy is too politically driven. He says
that schemes have been rolled out before the research has been

Parenting orders are a case in point. Interventions through the
criminal justice system in parenting are completely new. The home
secretary has announced an extension of parenting orders for
parents of children who truant even though the results of the
review commissioned by the YJB have not yet been published. Goldson
says: “Research on parenting programmes is very inconclusive. A
whole range of initiatives have been moved from social welfare
provision to criminal justice. That’s the critical departure.”

1 Youth Justice Board, Preliminary Report
on the Operation of the New Youth Justice System
, Youth
Justice Board, 2001

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