Does the youth justice system know why young people are locked up?

Research into the sentencing of young offenders has revealed a lack of understanding by courts, youth justice professionals and young people themselves of the reason and purpose for custody, argues Declan Kerr

Last week, Youth Justice Board chair Rod Morgan, chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers and England’s children’s commissioner Al-Aynsley Green all warned that the youth justice system had reached crisis point because of the record number of under-18s in custody.

Added to this is the growing concern about the number of deaths of young people in custody. But recent research by the Youth Justice Trust indicates that few of the people with responsibility for the sentencing or for structuring the use of custodial time actually knew why the child or young person was in custody?

The audit of need at Hindley Young Offender Institution, which holds 15- to 17- year-old boys, was based on interviews with a range of prison and partner agency staff, and includes a study of a random sample of 16 children and young people held in the institution in March 2006. All of the young people in the sample were interviewed and their case notes studied.

More than 60 per cent of the sample had been convicted of a criminal offence involving violence against a person. In each instance the young people recounted to the interviewers how they had been “out of their heads” on alcohol at the time of the offence. They also had significant experience of loss and grief.

In a study of street crime in Greater Manchester, conducted by researchers from Salford University, young people reported how they would seek to “blot out” painful events with alcohol and drugs, and in doing so came to be involved in crime.

So is it the case that these young people in Hindley were placed in custody to:

  • Wean them off alcohol?
  • Sort out their internal emotional pain?
  • Get help to manage their anger?
  • Help them realise the error of their ways?
  • Help them to cease offending
  • Protect the public?
  • Mark disapproval of their actions by use of the most serious sanction available?

    Maybe there didn’t appear to the relevant magistrates or judge to be an alternative, and custody was thereby used as a confession of hopelessness?

    Magistrates and judges have a duty under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to state in open court how criteria for custody are met in each individual case. In prison there is evidence that occasionally the reasons for custody is included in the paperwork accompanying a young person, and so sentence planning can start with knowledge of its purpose.

    In the Hindley audit there was no information on file in any of the cases to indicate the purpose of a custodial sentence. Nor is the Hindley sample exceptional in this regard. Since undertaking the audit, Youth Justice Trust researchers have compared practice with other youth offending teams and secure estate workers across England and it appears that there is a routine absence of information about why children and young people are in custody, and the purpose of custody.

    Magistrates and judges ask for a pre-sentence report (PSR) from a specialist in a youth offending team or service before passing a custodial sentence. The report covers assessments of risk of further offending, and whether the young person
    takes responsibility for their actions, and a recommendation about what kind of sentence might best prevent further offending.

    The audit found that in 77 per cent of cases the report written for the court recommended reduction or prevention of further offending by supervision in the community. In the remaining 23 per cent of cases the recommendation in the report was for custody. In none of the case files relating to the young people in the sample at Hindley was there any indication of why the PSR recommendation had not been followed, nor any indication where custody had been recommended that magistrates or judges agreed with the reason or purpose for custody as outlined in the report.

    There is a recommendation in the recent Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Social Services’ paper on the next steps for youth justice, which outlines the case for a dialogue about sentence planning and placement before a sentence is passed at court.(1) It is suggested that such a dialogue could happen each time that a case involving serious
    or persistent offending came before the court.

    After a guilty verdict is reached, and having heard aggravating and mitigating factors about the offence, the court should adjourn to discuss how a sentence plan could be constructed in the interests of preventing further offending (a duty under the Crime & Disorder Act 1998) and the best sentence to support the purpose might subsequently follow.

    In the LGA/ADSS proposal a sentence planning and placement dialogue would include the magistrate or judge, a representative of the relevant youth offending team or service, the child or young person and their parent/guardian or adult carer. The views of the Youth Justice Board as experts in the placement of children and young people in custody could also be represented.

    The benefits of such a process might include:

  • Discussing what is the best means of preventing offending.
  • Finding the best placement for a child or young person based on an understanding of their needs and how these might be met, rather than simply what might be available.
  • Opportunity to thoroughly discuss vulnerability in each individual instance.
  • Opportunity for magistrates and judges to ask questions and hear plans about what is available and to discuss local experience of what works best to prevent offending.
  • Involving children and young people as defendants, and their parents and guardians more closely in the discussion of righting wrongs.

    Ultimately it could provide a means for the close management of risk, protection of the child in proceedings and protection of the public by the best utilisation of available resources in each individual case.

    For a copy of the audit of need at Hindley YOI please contact Declan Kerr at the Youth Justice Trust

    DECLAN KERR is director of the Youth Justice Trust, a position he has held since 1999. He has a long-standing interest in why we lock up children, and more recently in asking if how we respond to life events (resilience) provides an important key in how to prevent youth crime. His background is in the criminal justice system including working at a bail hostel and as a national youth crime policy officer with Nacro.

    The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams.These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
    training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

    The use of custody is the gravest sanction available to the criminal court, yet in practice, do professionals working with children and young people who are put in custody know what magistrates or judges intended when they made the sentence? Research
    by the Youth Justice Trust finds little evidence that practitioners know what the purpose of custody is, and supports the proposal
    to introduce a dialogue about sentence planning and placement before a sentence is passed.

    (1) Children in Trouble Matter, ADSS/LGA, 2005.
    For further details about this workplease contact Liz Hobson; at the LGA


  • Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Youth Crime, Cmmunities that Care publication or the Youth Justice Board, 2002
  • On the Case: a Survey of Over 1,000 Children and Young People under Supervision by Youth Offending Teams in Greater
    Manchester and West Yorkshire, Youth Justice Trust, 2003. or e.mail

    This article appeared in the 2 November issue on pages 34 & 35 under the headline “Locked up for what”


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