Youth justice system faces overhaul

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ex-government adviser Charlie Taylor outlines what he will focus on as he leads a review of the system.

Following Justice Secretary Michael Gove's announcement in September that a review of the youth justice system will be conducted, the man appointed to head it has given an indication of areas on which he will focus.

Former government behaviour adviser Charlie Taylor used last month's annual youth justice convention in Leicester to outline where his attention will be directed.

Addressing delegates at the event, Taylor stressed the fact that there have been significant changes in relation to the wider justice system in recent years - such as the introduction of police and crime commissioners, and the launch of community rehabilitation companies following a reorganisation of probation services, as well as substantial reforms to education, health and local authority services.

"The youth justice system has not undergone similar far-reaching reforms since its creation," he said.

"This is absolutely the right time to take stock, to consider what works well and to make recommendations for how things can be done better."

Devolution

One area he is keen to explore is devolution - citing both custodial budgets and the youth offending teams grant as things that could be transferred to a more local level.

"I'm keen to explore opportunities for greater levels of devolution and what these might look like," he said. "What is the right level of devolution and subsidiarity, and to who and how could this be delivered?

"I'm particularly interested to see how devolution of the custody budgets and the YOT grant can drive innovation in how services are commissioned and delivered."

The idea of devolving custody budgets is nothing new. The Youth Justice Board (YJB) has previously championed the idea, establishing a two-year pilot project in four areas back in 2011 to test it out.

Under the scheme, consortia were liable for paying back the money given to them to invest in alternatives to custody if they fail to hit their targets. But two of the consortia - Birmingham and a group of local authorities in north-east London - struggled to meet targets and dropped out of the scheme a year early to avoid being liable for financial penalties.

If it were introduced, it would afford YOTs the opportunity to reinvest savings they accrued from reducing custody numbers.

Secure estate

In terms of youth custody, Taylor describes the increasing levels of violence within YOIs as "worrying and unacceptable".

He is also concerned by staff shortages and questioned whether some of the staff have the skills and experience to manage the challenging children in their care. He points to the different rules, inspection regimes and cost of placement across secure children's homes, secure training centres and young offender institutions, adding that he is concerned that governors "don't have enough autonomy".

"As a former head teacher, I have been amazed how many of the decisions I would have been able to take in the running of my school are not in the hands of governors," he said. "This restricts the ability of these leaders to innovate and make changes to regimes and services, including most crucially the recruitment and training of staff."

Resettlement

Beyond this, he states that the focus of custody has to be about rehabilitation - and about preparing children for life and work post-release.

"It's about equipping children with the right education, skills and qualifications to ensure they have the best life chances, and the resilience and support that will make them less likely to reoffend. The review will therefore consider innovative and effective changes to the current custody regime."

He added that once a child has left custody, greater priority has to be given to resettling them in the community.

"It's not right that many young people leave custody with no idea where and with whom they are going to live. Resettlement has to be a joint effort between children's, education, social and mental health services, and the police.

"To be really effective, the response needs to be seamless."

This chimes with YJB chief executive Lin Hinnigan, who called for greater integration of community and custodial services - something she said would offer improved outcomes for young people, as well as "opportunities for efficiency and value for money".

"We should go beyond managing the transition from custody to the community better, to a much more seamless joined-up service for young people," she said.

Further areas Taylor wants to explore include work to divert young people from the system.

"We need to ensure diversion is used in the most effective way and at the correct level," he said.

"Evidence suggests that early formal contact with the criminal justice system could increase the rate of reoffending and there seems to be a wide range of diversionary practice across both police forces and youth offending teams.

"It would be helpful to have a clearer sense of what effective diversion is. When, where and by whom diversion should be delivered and within what timescales."

He also highlighted the current over-representation of young black and Asian men in the youth justice system as an issue.

"It's clear that the challenges for the youth justice system are significant, but so too are the opportunities to build on recent progress and success. Now is the right time to be taking a fresh look at the system," Taylor added.

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