Prevention is better than court

By Sean Creaney

| 14 December 2017

Prevention is better than court is Cheshire Youth Justice Services' strapline for Divert - a programme targeted at children aged 10-17, arrested for less serious offences. The purpose is to ensure children get a fast assessment and receive an appropriate intervention. It has a role in early identification of need and not just criminogenic factors. Crucially, importance is given to understanding the specific issues for each individual child whether it be health, domestic abuse, or learning need for example. The organisation recently scooped a Howard League award in the policing and children category. Crucially the Youth Justice Board's (YJB) Prevention briefing promotes such constructive and positive ways of dealing with problematic behaviour.

The briefing discusses ‘best practice' and shares some examples of work being done in the area of ‘crime prevention' - in other words ‘those on the cusp of offending' or who have committed offences that are of a ‘low-level'. Crucially, it begins by stating that, drawing children into the formal system (especially unnecessarily) can increase the likelihood of further offending. Thus it alluded to the importance of Youth Offending Services and justice systems generally avoiding early (or escalating) criminalisation and instead pursuing minimum intervention and maximum diversion.

The briefing also notes "there is evidence about known risk factors for offending". However, evidence for targeting risk factors is not "strong". It would be naïve to assume that this narrow and restricted form of ‘evidence' is absolute. Pathways in and out of crime are complex and difficult to measure accurately. In other words, predicting future offending is not "common sense".

In the YJB briefing there is a discussion on the effectiveness of different interventions/treatments with children in the justice system such as family therapies, mentoring and positive activities. Crucially, it was acknowledged that discipline and control-based programmes are least effective in terms of promoting positive outcomes and reducing re-offending. The briefing referred specifically to "boot camps" and "scared straight" programmes as ineffective. What is more, "harsher" prison sentences are not a "real deterrent". Moreover, according to the chief inspector of prisons "not a single establishment inspected was safe to hold young people".

One of the main reasons that prisons and harsher sentences are so ineffective is that they do not help promote a non-criminal identity, which the Beyond Youth Custody project has shown is vital for high risk offenders to stop offending. In fact, prison reinforces a criminal identity, making desistance harder.

That is a lesson in labelling that could also apply to prevention interventions. One of the dangers with interventions that try to address predicted future offending is that they can also lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. They could foster or reinforce a criminal identity. A desistance-based approach to prevention (or perhaps technically "resistance-based"), which is not explored in the briefing, would instead emphasise helping children see themselves in ways that will empower them to make positive behaviour choices.

Of particular note in the briefing is the point that "the most effective programmes used behavioural or cognitive-behaviour techniques". However, although CBT can be beneficial in terms of equipping young people with the ability to problem solve, there is a danger it can individualise problems and if the intervention fails it can be seen as the fault of the child.

Despite it being an interesting briefing paper, it is important to state that those who work with children in the justice system, at all stages (from prevention through to resettlement) should not be the ones who define the problems or decide the most appropriate intervention. Decision-making should be shared with children having a say on "what works" for them and their circumstances. In other words, the priority should be establishing trusting/empathic relationships as a medium for change, and pursuing joint ownership of intervention plans and treatments. As the child's engagement is crucial to any intervention working, "co-creation" (to use one of Beyond Youth Custody's "5Cs" for effective support) of plans is crucial to sustained success. It is worth noting that the Greater Manchester Youth Justice University Partnership has made available a set of engagement and out-of-court resources. To help ensure young people's voices are heard, practitioners are encouraged to adopt the theory of Participatory Youth Practice into their work with children in or on the cusp of the justice system.

Sean Creaney is an advisor at social justice charity Peer Power

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