Too many cases that go to court could be dealt with elsewhere’

Rod Morgan knows that his leadership of the Youth Justice Board will be judged on whether the number of children in custody falls next year. By Maria Ahmed

Morgan, RodRod Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, monitors the num ber of young people in custody every day in the hope that it is falling.

As he enters the final year of the post he has held since April 2004, he is eager to find new ways to reduce the tally, which, at the latest count, stands at 2,746.

Custody numbers have “flatlined” since 2002, Morgan says, compared with a massive rise in adult prisoners and the more than doubling in youth imprisonment in the 1990s.

“I’m not complacent about custody levels,” he says firmly, but he admits the YJB’s target of reducing numbers by 10 per cent by March next year is “modest”.

He adds: “We have bucked the adult trend – which is approaching record levels – and that’s a credit to youth justice workers. However, on a wider level, it’s not such a huge achievement as there should be far fewer children in custody. While the numbers are not rising, I am watching them warily.”

Morgan says reducing the number will entail more pre-court solutions to youth crime. “Too many cases are being brought to courts that could be dealt with more speedily and cheaply in other settings,” he says.

Morgan distances himself from reports that he claims wrongly portrayed him in a row with the government over the criminalisation of young people through policies such as antisocial behaviour orders.

He says his real challenge is to the agencies responsible for young people in the community.

Morgan is particularly concerned that children are criminalised for “minor” offences in residential homes, arguing that staff should be trained to deal with their behaviour rather than resort to prosecution.

He also wants to see schools and the police exercising more discretion over whether it would be in the public interest to bring young people to the attention of the courts.

Morgan says the recent case of a 10-year-old boy in Manchester taken to court for allegedly subjecting a fellow pupil to racist taunts is “the tip of the iceberg” of cases where schools are failing to deal effectively with  children’s behaviour.

He also believes the police must be given incentives for diverting young people away from the criminal justice system. “Police do not have targets for holding restorative justice or family group conferences, but for how many cases they bring to justice. If we want to see police work dovetailing with youth justice, they must be rewarded for spending time on other measures,” Morgan says.

On a wider level, Morgan is pleased with the home secretary’s five-year plan to reduce reoffending, which aims to keep children out of custody. But diverting more children into alternative settings is already difficult due to lack of resources – especially for the one-third of young prisoners with mental health problems.

Morgan is anxious about the impact of the health service funding crisis on transferring more children with mental health problems out of prison and into hospital.

“There are some cases where children are not taken into the mental health system until the second they are at the prison gate on the day of their release,” he says.

“Services are reluctant to take them on while they are inside because they may not have a place for them to go. I’m not out to blame anyone – the stresses on the system are legion.”

Morgan knows the success of his final year will depend on how far the number of children in custody will fall – and he is clear this cannot be achieved by the YJB alone.

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