Most adults in prison started their criminal careers as young offenders. It explains why the statutory principle of the youth justice system over the past decade as been the prevention of offending.
But, despite all the rhetoric and restructurings of the Blair years, we continue to incarcerate large numbers of children and young people. The figure is currently running at around 3,000.
Youth crime has been enveloped in hysteria and the Home Office’s response has been to focus on protecting the public. This has meant the system criminalises young people for relatively minor wrongdoing rather than tackle the drivers of crime.
This hasn’t escaped Gordon Brown. In June he made youth justice the joint responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and Department for Children, Schools and Families, with its wider aims of promoting safety, health and achievement among children. This shared responsibility was confirmed last week with the launch of a new youth justice unit, overseeing the Youth Justice Board and determining policy and resource allocation.
The challenge for this unit will be to make prevention a reality. To succeed there will have to be much more emphasis on the educational, mental health and familial issues that underpin offending.
It’s also going to have to develop more meaningful alternatives to detention, extending the use of restorative justice in particular. We also need a wider range of community-based and residential placements for more challenging children to replace custody.
In the meantime, if young people do end up in the custodial system, it’s vital they have a social worker to look out for their interests. This week sees growing support for the continuance of social worker placements within young offender institutions – but confirmation of future funding is still needed. This also applies to prevention funding to youth offending teams, who are starting to suffer from financial uncertainty.
Coordinating the work of the youth justice unit within the wider children’s agenda will also be essential. The Children and Young Persons Bill was released last week for example. It’s the legislative vehicle for the Care Matters white paper, and while many of the initiatives will improve outcomes for children in care, there are concerns that it puts more emphasis on supporting those who are already doing well than those who are more likely to enter the criminal justice system. At least it includes a duty to visit any child in care who is in youth custody.
When the Children’s Plan is launched next month, we will hopefully see the whole picture. For the time being, we should be positive that prevention is back on the agenda.
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