Leap of faith needed

    There is a depressing inevitability about the direction of youth
    justice policy. Despite the widely articulated view that the
    principle aim of the youth justice system should be prevention, the
    system deals largely with young people after they have offended.
    And even though the government believes custody should be used only
    as a last resort, the number of custodial sentences is once again
    increasing.

    Even the public body set up to champion the prevention and
    rehabilitation agendas, the Youth Justice Board, is hamstrung by
    its own funding. Current circumstances dictate that 70 per cent of
    the board’s budget must go on custody, leaving little room for
    manoeuvre to explore the options.

    If the Youth Justice Board were a private company it would be
    calling in consultants to address the gap between its mission and
    its operation. Despite developing and promoting new non-custodial
    sentences and programmes for young offenders, the board still
    operates within a system which purports to believe that custody
    works best. And that is despite evidence that more than 80 per cent
    of incarcerated offenders go on to re-offend.

    For there to be a greater shift towards prevention and
    community-based options to custody, evidence-based policy making
    requires rigorous demonstration that these approaches work. Yet how
    can their true value be shown when so little is invested in
    them?

    The pendulum shift away from custody is not going to happen by
    drip-feeding the system with new ideas. Nothing short of a leap of
    faith is required. Significant regional variations in the use of
    custodial sentences suggest that it is still attitudes to the
    criminal justice system, not the nature of offences, that
    determines who is locked up.

    How might attitudes change? The options need to be vigorously
    promoted. But part of the answer must lie in establishing a clearer
    identity for a preventive and rehabilitative criminal justice
    system. In other words, what would a criminal justice system that
    focused on helping young people turn around their lives (and
    preventing them offending in the first place) look like?

    It might begin with programmes that are usually only tangentially
    associated with the criminal justice system. Investment in
    parenting support would feature because the roots of criminal
    behaviour often lie in the family.

    Rather than consisting of parent programmes targeted at “problem”
    families, a preventive criminal justice system would provide
    universal access to parenting support, not only because it is
    almost impossible to predict which families are likely to produce a
    “criminal” child but also because services delivered in a
    non-stigmatised way are more likely to produce positive
    results.

    The vision of a children’s centre in every neighbourhood offers the
    means to deliver universal parenting support. If in future all
    parents were to visit a children’s centre, whether to access child
    care, health services or employment advice, the chance to pick up
    parenting tips from trained professionals would increase. By
    building on the experience of Sure Start, the centres could become
    one of the most crucial elements of a criminal justice system that
    seeks to tackle the root causes of youth crime.

    Next, schools. Youth crime often begins with disaffection with
    learning. More than half of young offenders have been excluded from
    school or are persistent truants. Many are underachievers. About
    one in five have special educational needs. Programmes that help
    disaffected young people identify their self-worth, through music,
    sport and other “vocational” activities, would be central to a
    criminal justice system seeking to focus on prevention.

    No youth justice system is going to do away with custody. But if
    the system’s aim is to turn around young people’s lives, custody is
    rarely the best environment in which to do this. Community
    sentences can best address offenders’ needs and help tackle the
    factors underlying their offending behaviour.

    The number of young people held in custody is lower today than when
    the Youth Justice Board was established. But rates are rising
    again. Attention and resources need to shift towards prevention and
    community-based rehabilitation rather than a system which
    ultimately fails young people and the public.

    Lisa Harker is chairperson of the Daycare
    Trust.

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