One in 10 YOTs 'miss opportunities' to divert children from crime

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 31 January 2019

Some children may be unnecessarily ending up with a criminal record because not all youth offending teams (YOTs) are offering diversion schemes, research suggests.

Almost 90 per cent of youth offending teams are diverting children away from prosecution. Credit: Robin Hammond

More than 10 per cent of YOTs are not using these alternative methods to dispose of first-time or low-level offences, leading to charities raising concerns about a "postcode lottery".

The survey, conducted by the think-tank Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI), contacted 152 YOTs across England and Wales, and 133 said they have a "point-of-arrest diversion scheme" in place. Some 19 confirmed they do not.

The schemes include non-statutory alternatives to prosecution or out-of-court disposals, such as quick referrals to "light-touch", voluntary programmes.

The think-tank did not identify which areas were without such an approach.

Research has shown that young people who enter the youth justice system are more likely to reoffend, as well as it interrupting their education and leaving them with a criminal record.

Despite the evidence behind it, according to the CJI, youth diversion is not a statutory duty of YOTs.

The CJI said a previous survey of YOTs "highlighted the fear among practitioners that, due to mounting budget pressures, youth diversion was losing investment".

Today's report also raises concerns that of the 115 YOTs that responded to survey questions, 44 per cent said a child had to admit guilt to be eligible for the diversion.

The report states: "The evidence base suggests that denying access to diversion solely because the child failed to make a formal admission of guilt is counter-productive and may even exacerbate racial disparities."

Instead, the report's authors recommended use of a more flexible requirement to "accept responsibility", rather than guilt.

The study also found that 70 per cent of responding YOTs required children to give their consent for the diversion to take place.

"Diversion is qualitatively different from statutory supervision in that it is by nature voluntary, a distinction that should be respected to avoid the damaging effects of labelling," the study said.

The research found the kind of diversions offered by YOTs included substance abuse counselling (68 per cert) and victim awareness classes (64 per cent).

These lasted for more than three months at 35 per cent of responding YOTs, while a quarter (25 per cent) kept the length to less than three months.

Some YOTs were found to have thresholds for entry, for example, 27 per cent only admitted children who had committed up to two offences. However, 41 per cent judged eligibility on a case-by-case basis.

"Given the evidence that the vast majority of 10- to 17-year-olds will not go on to become chronic offenders, it is encouraging to see a good number of schemes employ professional discretion for this criterion," the report said.

The survey also asked YOTs to comment on their levels of funding. More than a fifth (22 per cent) said they had less funding in 2018 than in the previous year.

Only two per cent had more, and 34 per cent had roughly the same. The remainder did not answer this question.

Charities have warned that more needed to be done to help children.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of children's charity Just for Kids Law, said young people were subject to a postcode lottery when it came to opportunities for diversion.

"The variation in diversion schemes throughout the country means a child in one part of the country receives a criminal record for behaviour that might be dealt with through a diversion scheme in another area," said Solomon.

"This leads to a postcode lottery and opportunities to divert children out of the criminal justice system being missed.

"There needs to be a consistent approach across all areas so that diversion is actively considered for every child regardless of where they live."

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that offering schemes at the point of arrest was too late.

"The Howard League has been working successfully with police forces across England and Wales so that children are diverted before arrest, leading to a 68 per cent reduction in child arrests in seven years," said Crook.

In 2012 The Howard League for Penal Reform argued that prevention services to steer young people away from crime should be moved outside the remit of the youth justice system.

blog comments powered by Disqus