Youth justice belt tightening could prove costly, say experts

Chancellor vows to cut cost of youth justice, but experts say the focus should be on not locking up so many children in the first place.

Wholesale reform of the youth justice system, flagged up by Chancellor George Osborne as being a key part of the government’s spending review, will only work if less children are locked up, according to experts.

Mr Osborne, interviewed on BBC’s Today programme on Tuesday, revealed that seven government departments – Justice, Energy, Communities, Cabinet Office, Treasury, Foreign Office and Northern Ireland – had agreed to cut their budgets by 10 per cent to help achieve savings of £11.5bn in 2015.

He said cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s annual budget of £6.8bn would entail cost cutting measures and reform across the criminal justice system including courts, probation and prisons.

Osborne singled out the youth justice system as an area ripe for reform. He said: “We are also making reforms to youth justice to make sure we can hold youngsters in detention without the very substantial costs at the moment.”

Youth justice reforms

The government’s plan to reform youth justice was outlined in a green paper launched in February, Transforming Youth Custody: Putting Education at the Heart of Detention. Ministers revealed they want to replace young offenders institutions (YOIs) and secure units with ‘secure colleges’ in order to “put education at the heart of detention”.

The proposal, which could see academies and free schools managing the new secure colleges, aims to reduce the £245m a year spent on the detention of around 1,500 young people in secure units.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: “Some youth custodial places cost £200,000, five times the cost of sending a child to a top private school.”
Reoffending is a far bigger problem in the youth justice system than it is in the adult system. In 2011/12, 73 per cent of young offenders reoffended within a year of leaving custody, compared with 47 per cent of adult offenders.

‘Lock up less children’

However, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told Community Care that the best way of saving money within the youth justice system is to stop locking up so many children.

“If George Osborne is concerned about the cost of putting children in prison, Chris Grayling should focus on creating a system that puts fewer children in prison.

“Community sentences provide a clear response for the majority of children in custody – delivering far lower rates of reoffending at a fraction of the cost. Mr Grayling’s disinterment of the old idea of ‘secure colleges’ will simply throw good money after bad and condemn more children to a life of crime.

“Children in the criminal justice system are often victims of neglect and abuse, suffer from mental health problems, or have grown up in environments plagued by drug and alcohol abuse. These children need support to address the underlying causes of why they committed crimes, rather than locking up in failing and costly prisons.”

Focus on rehabilitation

Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the reforms could work only if there was an emphasis on the quality of rehabilitation, rather than the quantity.

“If this shift in policy involves locking up fewer young people, those serious offenders who can benefit from long term interventions, than it has a chance of working. At the moment the system catches far too many young people. They are locked up for very short periods of time, making the chances of successful rehabilitation negligible. A lot of the changes that need to happen are around sentencing.”

Local authorities have already warned they face huge costs arising from new regulations which from December give children on remand looked-after status.

When the Chancellor announced that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was one of the seven departments that had agreed a 10 per cent cut, alarm spread across local government. But a DCLG spokesman later confirmed that the 10 per cent cut agreed by minister Eric Pickles regarded the department’s running costs rather than any money passed onto local government.

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