Analysing plans for youth justice academies

The Youth Justice Board has plans for youth justice academies, an idea that many political parties are keen on. By Dean Woodward

With three months until a general election, I do think that current plans for youth justice academies that have been supported by many political parties need some strict analysis.

I have enlisted the technical support of my teenage daughter, and double science student, Tiffany. According to her, the five principles behind the current vision seem to be:

Local trusts + voluntary sector

(Local custodial institution + education = reduced re-offending)

= savings

The potential pluses

The bottom line of the equation seems very promising. Building local custodial settings would mean not having to send young offenders far away from their families and is generally accepted by most professionals as being very beneficial in successful resettlement back into the community. It would also provide an excellent opportunity to mediate between local gangs that could resonate back into the community.

A focus on education can only be positive and in combination with living closer to home, should provide a smoother transition back into the education providers in the community. If local education providers were able to routinely link with the young offenders in custody prior to their release and plan their education on the outside, I would expect much better outcomes in education, employment and training numbers. If this process could be combined with the family, the two biggest influences on re-offending, ie family and education, would be far more likely to be positive upon release.

The top line of the equation is very exciting, in particular, a local trust. Coming from an inner London perspective, here are massive benefits in bringing neighbouring boroughs together to locally govern custody.

Answers needed

The two important practical questions I have are:

  • Where we will find the sites to build locally? I doubt many people would be too keen for an abandoned factory site nearby their home to be turned into a young offender institution.
  • Can we afford to build more YOIs and what else will have to be sacrificed (such as prevention work) to fund this? My philosophical concern is the notion that if you build more prisons you will fill them, thus, ultimately increasing the prison population rather than decreasing it.

Re-offending rates have not been the sole contributor to our high custody rates. Policy throughout the criminal justice system has influenced the consistent increase in our prison population. A new direction in custody may also require a broader change in sentencing legislation if we are to see custody levels reduce.

Money and tolerance

Now that the money is running out we may see a change led by necessity. Even the prison-loving culture in the US is changing as it is no longer able to afford its prison population. It is easy to point to the YJB or the local authorities to blame for the problems with re-offending, but a rare positive might come from this recession when we consider the costs of our society’s values and lack of tolerance for young offenders.

Dean Woodward is assistant director of Lambeth Specialist Youth Services

This article is published in the 4 March 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Questions for the Conservatives over ‘youth justice academies'”

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