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
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
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
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