Better care and lighter sentences promised for young offenders

The Youth Justice Board will work closer with colleagues in health and education in order to better meet the needs of young people in custody, it pledged last week.

Launching its strategy for the secure estate for children for the next three years, the YJB promised to work more collaboratively with the Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills “to plan for the needs of children and young people in custody in a more coherent and integrated way”.

In particular, it flagged up young people with serious mental health problems as requiring specific input from the DH in terms of better in-house services for those who can be reasonably cared for in custody and specialist mental health provision outside the secure estate for those who cannot.

By March 2008, the YJB aims to reduce the population of children and young people in custody by 10% – or about 270 places – from March 2005 levels.

This will be achieved in part by strengthening community alternatives to custody, through more flexible use of temporary release, and by placing some children in non-secure establishments, including open secure children’s homes and residential special schools. However, the latter would require a change in the law, and a spokesperson for the Home Office admitted no date had yet been scheduled for the introduction of the proposed youth justice bill.

Publication of the YJB’s strategy, amended in the light of a three-month consultation earlier in the year, coincided with new draft guidelines from the Sentencing Guidelines Council which propose a community rather than a custodial sentence as the starting point for first-time young offenders guilty of mugging individuals or robbing small businesses using minimal force.

It also coincided with the launch of a High Court bid for a public inquiry into the death of 16-year-old Joseph Scholes, who took his own life at Stoke Heath Young Offender Institution in 2002.

Joseph’s mother wants home secretary Charles Clarke to follow the recommendations of the coroner and order a public inquiry into the sentencing policy that saw Joseph locked up for playing a minor role in three street robberies, the suitability of him being sent to a YOI, and the way he was looked after when he was there. However, the Home Office believes such an inquiry would be too unwieldy.

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