THE BLOG
17/02/2016 17:33 GMT | Updated 17/02/2017 10:12 GMT

We Must Be Ambitious for Children in Trouble With the Law

Published on 9 February, only a day after a Prime Ministerial announcement about reforms to adult prisons, Charlie Taylor's interim report of emerging findings from the review the youth justice system makes good reading.

The ambition shown in Michael Gove's plans to reform adult prisons earlier in the week is much in view in Taylor's, which has an important starting point: that children who offend must be treated differently from adult offenders.

He states that while the youth justice system must seek to repair harm and protect communities, there should also be an ambition for children who offend to be helped to overcome their difficulties. This is a simple concept, but one that has not been voiced readily to date.

Taylor's review comes at a time of real potential. Few members of the general public will be aware that the number of children in custody has declined dramatically in recent years from around 3,000 in 2008 to its lowest ever level: in December 2015 there were just 929 under 18-year-olds in custody in England and Wales providing an opportunity for root and branch reform of the system. The number of girls in custody is currently around 40.

But before we congratulate ourselves too readily, we should note that the number of children in prison in Finland rarely rises above five. Whatever your view on youth custody, there are clearly options as to how we choose to treat children at risk of getting into trouble with the law.

Taylor's report tells us that, of the children who remain in custody, shockingly: almost two-thirds reoffend within a year of release; around 40% of the under-18s in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) have not been to school since they were 14 and most - nearly nine out of 10 - have been excluded from school at some point.

The report also found that children in YOIs only receive around 17 hours of education per week against an expectation of 30 hours. Notwithstanding arguments that the children who remain in custody tend to be the most challenging and have the most complex needs and that reoffending rates within a year of release may not be the very best measure of success because they do not differentiate between minor and serious offences, these statistics remain alarming and indicate the need for major reform.

Knowing Charlie Taylor's background with its emphasis on relationships, children's behaviour and the importance of a growing a sense of aspiration for each child, we should not have been surprised about the scale and ambition for change. The question now is whether it can be delivered.

The building blocks for change outlined are significant:

• re-designing the youth estate so that it can cater for a smaller, but more challenging, group of children in custody.

• placing education at the centre of youth custody, by drawing on the culture of aspiration and discipline which is evident in the best alternative provision schools.

• replacing youth prisons with smaller secure schools which help children master the basics in English and maths, as well as providing high quality vocational education in a more therapeutic environment.

• giving local areas greater say and more involvement in the way children involved with the law are treated by devolving responsibility, control and money from Whitehall.

My team's regular visits to the secure estate confirm that children in the youth justice system tend to be very vulnerable: many come from traumatic backgrounds, similar to children in the care system, and many have learning disabilities or suffer from mental ill health.

Despite some good intentions, the current regimes struggle to go much further than containment. Our recent research found that too many children are spending time in isolation in a system which is closer to crowd control than the ambitions of personal development and recovery that we see in Taylor's report.

The report is a good interim staging post but the hard work now begins to make it a reality. We have an opportunity to set sights high. If we offer the right help early it should be possible to ensure many children find an alternative to offending. The Troubled Families programme has started some of this work, but we need to be in this for the long game.

The focus on education needs to come good. It should be combined with an increased focus on the provision of individualised care and therapeutic support to help overcome the trauma of childhood experiences and build resilience, self-regulation and life skills.

It is down to every one of us with a role to play in children's futures to make this work. Securing support for the final stages of the Taylor review is crucial.