12/07/2016 12:50 BST | Updated 13/07/2017 06:12 BST

Our Justice System Lets Young People Down - Here's How to Fix It

Change is coming to youth justice, and it's coming soon. Very shortly we'll be reading Charlie Taylor's long-awaited review of youth justice, an in-depth analysis of how our society treats the young people in our criminal justice system; and how it lets them down.

On paper, youth justice has improved significantly. Today there are just 880 under 18s behind bars, a meaningful drop on the 2,500 in custody a decade ago. But if we zoom out to include those up to the age of 25, the picture darkens. There are over 17,000 young adults incarcerated in the UK, making up almost a quarter of the overall prison population. With 70% reoffending, that population will grow.

We wouldn't accept a 70% failure rate in any other area of public services. Why do we do so here? Urgent action is needed to reform a system that is behind the times and extremely short of the cash it needs to solve the problem.

Multiple and complex needs

These statistics mask what's bubbling under the surface. While it's true that fewer children are sentenced and incarcerated, those that go into prison today have multiple and complex needs.

It's rare for a successful person to stumble into the criminal justice system. It acts as a social trawler net, picking up the debris trailing in the wake of myriad social failures. The young people we're putting away are likely to have diagnosed (and undiagnosed) mental health issues. They're likely to have learning difficulties, health problems, battles with addiction. They're likely to have poor educational outcomes and even poorer job prospects.

We must recognise that young offenders are often the product of failures in other parts of the system. While just 1% of Britons are put in care, they make up a quarter of all prisoners. We can't think of the criminal justice system in isolation. We must act to improve it alongside the reforms coming in children's social care, in mental health and in education.

Build, rather than diminish

The key to success will be interventions that keep in mind that young offenders are children; and they are likely to be children that have been let down by the bureaucratic and transactional systems we've created. Optimistically we think that things can be different if we apply compassion and common sense to rehabilitation.

The proven reoffending rate for young people is the highest across all age groups, and yet the capacity for change, and the long-term benefits of this change, is possibly greatest for this group. We're talking about young people with 60 more years to give productively to society.

To win, we must do things counterintuitively. After years of neglect, exclusion, and more recently punishment, what young people need is compassion, motivation and strengths development.

We are doing this at Only Connect (part of Catch22), albeit on a small scale, putting young guys from Feltham and Pentonville onto courses to build up their skills and confidence. Working to people's strengths, developing their capacity, and the capacity of communities that they come from is a better way of solving crime than targeting incapacitation and reducing reoffending figures.

Do 'what works': do a lot of it

Every year, Catch22 works with 4,000 young adults in the criminal justice system, and even more across children's social care, education and employment. We have 200 years of experience telling us what works to reduce youth offending. We know that good programmes have the following qualities:

  • They are 'human' - tailored to young people's learning styles, motivation, abilities and strengths;
  • They are therapeutic - focusing on a combination of skills and behaviours (restoration, counselling and mentoring);
  • They are based on mutual respect, long term, and delivered by trained staff.

The average youth sentence is less than four months. Even the most challenging youngsters find themselves back in their neighbourhoods after short spells inside, which, on the whole, only make them worse. They miss out on education, associate with negative peers and their self-esteem diminishes.

Prison should be the last resort; building alternatives would enable us to redistribute the millions spent on the youth institutions that make lives worse, as opposed to better.

Smells like teen spirit

Do you remember being 17? Full of energy, drive and desire. Rebellion and restlessness comes with the territory, but we've all but forgotten this in public consciousness. We know that adolescence is a time of physical, intellectual, emotional and social development.

Our challenge, is to harness youthful energy for something that is good and productive and contributes to our communities. We're seeing a movement in young people taking an active part in their communities through the National Citizen Service; it's time to find practical ways to engage young offenders in the same way.

A criminal record shouldn't be synonymous with a future without opportunity. The justice secretary talks about 'forgiveness' and 'redemption'. It is in our public interest to build both a criminal justice system which rehabilitates, and a society which gives second chances. All we need now is greater public interest, to help drive this revolution - let's end youth offending altogether.

Mat Ilic is Strategic Director of Justice at Catch22, the nationwide social business.