Community Care campaigns to impr ove treatment of young offenders

    Since the start of this year there has been a 10 per cent
    increase in the number of young people held in custody in England
    and Wales. This flies in the face of the Youth Justice Board’s
    commitment to reducing the number of young people behind bars and
    acknowledgement that detention makes the problem worse.

    Young offenders are some of the most vulnerable people in society.
    They are at risk from mental health problems, suicide, self-harm
    and drugs and alcohol problems before they even come into contact
    with the justice system.

    Once in a young offender institution and faced with a regime of
    strip searches and use of solitary confinement, these problems
    escalate. Each year a growing number of young people commit suicide
    in custody. In 2003, there were 11 deaths in the 18 to 20 age
    group.

    The survey to launch Community Care‘s Back on Track
    campaign on youth justice paints a bleak picture. Researchers
    questioned almost 400 members of youth offending teams and social
    workers whose clients are in custody.

    More than 70 per cent believe services for young offenders are
    reaching crisis point. More than 67 per cent know of at least one
    client that has considered or attempted suicide in custody and more
    than 80 per cent know of at least one client that has
    self-harmed.

    More than 80 per cent of respondents believe that not enough is
    being done to improve conditions in young offender institutions and
    more than 70 per cent don’t believe that custody is the best place
    for young people to be rehabilitated.

    Despite the findings and huge increase in the prevalence of young
    people assessed as vulnerable in custody – from 26 in 2000-1 to
    3,473 in 2003-4 – the YJB maintains that it has robust measures in
    place to identify mental health problems.

    “All young people who come into the youth justice system will have
    a comprehensive assessment which looks at factors that may have
    contributed to offending behaviour,” said a YJBspokesperson. They
    can also be referred to child and adolescent mental health
    services.

    “All young people are entitled to such services – incarceration
    does not remove their right to primary health care,” she added. The
    YJB has set tough targets for diagnosing vulnerability by
    2005.

    However, more than 85 per cent of respondents to Community
    Care
    ‘s survey believe that detaining children with mental
    health problems should end immediately.

    “The message needs to go out loud and clear from all elements of
    the system that custodial sentences for low-level offenders with
    mental health problems only serve to create more problems,” says
    Gill Reynolds, young person’s project manager at charity Revolving
    Doors Agency.

    “Young offenders continue to be a focus for retribution in our
    press and media. The reality is that a high proportion of them are
    vulnerable individuals with substantial mental health needs,” she
    adds.

    She says that the government should end the detention of vulnerable
    young people as a priority.

    Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says that custody
    only compounds rather than resolves the difficulties for vulnerable
    young people. Reoffending rates as a result are high. “Within two
    years of release, three-quarters will have been reconvicted and
    almost half – 47 per cent – will be back in jail, not surprising
    when you consider the dearth of support for young people on
    release.”

    Much of the problem lies in the confusion between the values and
    aims implicit in the government’s policies. On the one hand setting
    up youth offending teams (Yots) and encouraging more community
    sentences is the right direction to take, says Pauline Batstone,
    chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and
    manager of Bournemouth and Poole Yot. But the political agenda on
    crime and the reclassification of activities that were once legal
    such as meeting on street corners are criminalising new sections of
    young people, she says.

    Fran Russell, assistant director of the Howard League for Penal
    Reform, believes antisocial behaviour orders are a significant
    problem. “Many young people on these orders may not be known to
    Yots and are not offered enough support. When they breach these
    civil orders, they move into a punitive legal system that will send
    them to prison.”

    She says the political support for tougher policies on crime is
    increasing the severity of the sentences. “Young people who aren’t
    criminals are being sucked into the system.”

    Reynolds also says there is a problem with sentencers sending far
    too many young people to prison. “This can undermine some of the
    more effective approaches being developed by the YJB and the prison
    service.”

    “A similar survey of magistrates might help to illuminate why so
    many young people are being sent to prison when so many alternative
    options are now available,” she adds.

    Despite the vulnerability of young people in custody, instances of
    strip searches and solitary confinement continue to happen. More
    than half of respondents to the survey know clients that have been
    subjected to unnecessary control or restraint while in
    custody.

    Russell adds: “They don’t have the resources to care for young
    people with mental health problems, their response is to put them
    into solitary confinement which will only make the problem worse.
    We need to change the regime.”

    She believes that the Department of Health should be in charge of
    young offenders. “Once you have deprived these young people of
    their liberty, the priority should be looking after their
    welfare.

    “The punitive approach of the Home Office does not work.”

    Back on Track campaign aims

    • Dramatically reduce the number of children and young people
      being held in custody and calls for the greater use of community
      sentences.
    • Give children and young people better standards of treatment
      while in custody in order to help them when they leave and minimise
      the risk of reoffending.
    • Insist that the treatment of young people in custody conforms
      to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
    • Bring an end to the degrading and humiliating practice in young
      offender institutions such as routine strip searching and the
      overuse of control and restraint.
    • Call on the government to reduce the use of custody for
      children and young people, only using custody as a last resort and
      for the shortest possible lengths of time.
    • End the practice of remanding young people in adult
      prisons.
    • Promote the use of community initiatives such as youth
      inclusion projects to help children and young people with
      resettlement on release and minimise the risk of reoffending.
    • Increase the provision of services of offenders – in custody
      and the community – in need of treatment for mental health problems
      or drug and alcohol misuse.
    • Reduce self-harm and suicides among young people in custody by
      encouraging more involvement of social workers and removing from
      prisons those children and young people with serious mental health
      problems.
    • Urge the government to ensure that the resources allocated to
      providing access to social workers in young offender institutions
      are being properly administered.

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