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A Youth Justice System that Works for Children

The LGA alongside the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) and the Association of Youth Offending Teams (YOT) Managers, have produced this joint policy position paper highlighting the challenges facing the youth justice system.

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Executive summary

In many ways recent youth justice policy can be considered a success story, with the reductions in cautions, convictions and overall contact with the youth justice system over the last decade or so rightly being described as “startling” (MoJ, 2016). However, these impressive headlines mask some very significant challenges in both policy and practice terms that require urgent attention, and crucially, action. From growing racial disparities and the over-representation of children with special educational needs or who are in care to concerns about the sustainability of the highly successful preventative work undertaken by youth offending teams (YOTs).

In early 2016, a shocking BBC Panorama investigation exposed bullying, aggressive staff behaviours and the use of inappropriate restraint on children at Medway Secure Training Centre (STC). Since then, a series of reviews, inquiries and reports, many of which have been directly commissioned by government, have been undertaken. It is no exaggeration to say hundreds of recommendations for change have been put forward by independent reviewers, parliamentary select committees, the inspectorates, and others. The BBC documentary, and the strength of public reaction to it, should have been a watershed moment, sadly it was not.

Five years on many of the same issues remain or have worsened, with COVID-19 adding a new sense of urgency. Over the last two years the inspectorates have documented an alarming deterioration in conditions and performance of the youth secure estate, with Medway and Rainsbrook STCs closing in the last 18 months following poor inspections. In recent weeks, fresh concerns about the health, safety and wellbeing of the children in the remaining STC in England, Oakhill, have resulted in the issuing of an Urgent Notification and a pause on new placements.

As the cohort in conflict with the law has contracted, the children now involved with the system have more complex and overlapping education, health and social care needs. Their offending behaviours often mask underlying vulnerabilities: from early childhood trauma and neglect to school exclusion, poor mental health and growing up in poverty. The severity and types of offences committed by children have shifted; average custodial sentences are longer; and, levels of violence between children, with staff and self-harm in custody are all high and rising. The pandemic has heightened existing concerns about the way children in conflict with the law continue to be treated differently; including backlogs and delays in police investigations and in the courts; access to education in custodial settings; and, collective responses to criminal exploitation.

Action is urgently required, not further diagnosis. A redesign of the current youth justice arrangements is clearly required if we wish to pursue truly ‘Child First’ approaches whilst supporting the needs of victims and their families. There are several timely developments which could assist with this aim: from national reviews into special educational needs, children’s social care and the passage of the new Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill to ongoing pandemic recovery planning.

A series of changes to address gaps in existing guidance or practices are put forward here to bring about improvements to children’s experiences and outcomes. These include: better sharing of information between the police and local authority YOTs, closer working between YOTs and children’s social care and routinely applying rules on vulnerable witnesses to all children appearing in youth courts. In the longer term, a more sophisticated, multi-agency, multi-disciplinary response is needed. This is best achieved via a cross-Whitehall public health response to youth justice and wider childhood vulnerabilities.

Published by:
LGA, ADCS and Association of YOT Managers
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