Last year the Chair of the Youth Justice Board, Charlie Taylor, produced a comprehensive review of the youth justice system in England and Wales with a bank of recommendations for government. The MoJ responded to this review committing to deliver a range of measures which have considerable potential to go on reducing the number of children and young people in the youth justice system and the secure estate.
With Brexit centre stage and the prospect of a leadership challenge in the Conservative Party any time soon the MoJ is in no rush to drive these initiatives forward. It should. These are three of the policies the government has pledged to deliver which could have the biggest impact on the youth justice system:
Continuing to support local approaches to keep young people out of custody
The government has promised to continue to ring-fence grants for the provision of youth justice within local authority funding and go on supporting Youth Offending Teams across the country. The government also recognise the importance of giving local authorities more autonomy and flexibility to go on constructing their own approaches to individual lives and circumstances.
Earlier this week David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, who is currently chairing an independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system, spoke about the importance of bringing justice closer to communities. Lammy suggests that elders and members of the community should take an active part in hearings and in determining appropriate sentences for children who break the law. Under Lammy's recommendations the responsibility, and accountability if things go wrong, is shared with the community to which the child belongs, and to which he or she will return. Lammy noted that Highbury Magistrates' Court is a "long, long way" from the Broadwater Farm Estate in his constituency. "Why is it we're not doing justice on the Broadwater Farm Estate?" he asked.
Looking ahead the government may well seek to change the nature of referral orders and do more to champion successful Community Court programmes especially in light of the publication of Lammy's review in September. For example the "Peer Court", which involves young volunteers aged 14 to 25 holding their peers to account in a formal hearing when they have broken the law for the first time. This programme uses restorative principals; looking for ways for victims and offenders to positively move on from crime and places that restoration firmly in the local community. This was first piloted in Hampshire, implemented by PC Mark Walsh through the support of the Police and Crime Commissioner at the time, Simon Hayes, and has been a terrific success, cutting out offending behaviour before things escalate. It has achieved a 97% offender attendance and engagement rate, which is very impressive and the current re-offending rate is very low.
Better education within the secure estate
Currently, amongst the young people that we're sending into secure institutions, two thirds are not engaged in any sort of education when they arrive often having been out of school for long periods of time through truancy or following exclusion. Only 1% of young people sentenced to less than 12 months achieved 5 or more GCSEs (or equivalents) graded A*-C including English and Maths. That's why, key to the transformation that the government want to see in the youth justice system, is education.
The government's decision to pilot two secure schools in the north and the south of the country should be embraced. Through this scheme the government will work closely with the Department for Education to ensure that these are run, governed and inspected as schools, drawing on the expertise and experience of successful alternative provision schools. These new secure schools will give greater freedoms to their head teachers to recruit staff and commission services.
The closure of many institutions within the last ten years and the restructuring of the secure estate has meant some young offenders end up in custody a long way from home with Youth Offending Teams operating from a distance; young people end up isolated from their family with fewer family visits. The government's vision for secure schools recognises the need to address this. Further down the line the government may well look to ensure that young offender institutions and secure training centres are replaced by these establishments, situated in the regions in which they serve, and focused on developing crucial life skills and opportunities for young people.
Providing the skills and training necessary for resettlement after custody
The government state in its response to Charlie Taylor's review that it is committed to developing a new Youth Custody Apprenticeship Pathway that will begin in custody and ensure that all children and young people are in education, training or employment on release.
Currently over two thirds of young offenders released from secure institutions reoffend within a year of release and numbers continue to rise. Supporting and providing young people with training, employment and education before and on release and measuring the number of young people who go on to secure full-time jobs is therefore imperative.
The secure estate is severely understaffed and stretched but with the government's pledge of 20% more staff on the front line in Young Offender Institutions, the promise of a dedicated officer for every young child and the appointment of Youth Justice Officers throughout the estate there is clearly space to improve in the training and advise given to young people in the system.
There are many exciting initiatives taking place which the government can do more to promote and roll out. For example, Leeds Rhinos Rugby Club runs sessions for the boys from Weatherby Young Offender Institution each week and the institution is also training boys as army cadets. This is increasing confidence and self-esteem and building vital skills for the future.
In summary, there are movements in the right direction within the government's response to the Taylor review making rehabilitation and restoration central to the youth justice system and there is a firm desire within government to go on reducing the number of young people in this system. But it must act quickly to embed these policies and make sure that a major opportunity to transform the lives of some of this country's most vulnerable children and young people is not lost.