Draft standards miss the mark

Experts warn revised youth justice standards may reduce children's rights and lead to inconsistent practice.

Revised national standards for how to work with children in the youth justice system have been criticised by youth justice organisations for being "vague" and lacking details -which in turn could lead to confusion among professionals and poorer outcomes for children.

The draft document, published by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) last autumn, condenses the existing 10 standards down to four, covering "out of court", "at court", "in the community" and "in secure settings" - with a fifth new standard "on transition" added.

The new standards, the consultation on which closed in late November, are due to come into force in April. Here, three experts outline their concerns.

John Drew, senior associate, Prison Reform Trust

"National standards have played an important part in ensuring the success in youth justice over the past two decades. Raising standards has increased confidence in youth offending teams (YOT) with the police, in the courts and with local and national politicians, and this in turn has paved the way to building diversion and reducing the number of children in custody - the twin pillars of the success.

Two elements concern me. The new standards will see a major reduction in the amount of direction given. They are also so vague at times to not really qualify as ‘standards'. So local youth justice services will be left much more alone than before. Is this a recipe for a return to the chaos of the 1990s?

The cumulative effect of austerity has hollowed out many services through staff shortages and high levels of churn. Performance is not universally excellent, particularly in vulnerable areas like resettlement, where plans are often produced very late, and are sometimes non-existent. Who is then surprised by the poor outcomes that follow?

My other concern is that these standards will lead to an unintended reduction in children's rights. The problem here is again with the YJB's vagueness.

Clear standards, capable of measurement, help define children's entitlements. Vague statements undermine accountability. How can children and advocates complain about the service they are receiving if that service is not described in an authoritative and indisputable manner? ‘Child first' youth justice means, among other things, adopting a ‘child's right' approach."

Andy Peaden, chair, Association of YOT Managers

"The focus in the draft standards on function rather than process means they may be interpreted differently across the country, leading to less consistency.

We need clear standards to ensure that there isn't justice by geography, and that children remain at the heart of the process, with their voices heard and a joined-up approach across all the services they need to prevent offending.

We welcome the ‘child first, offender second' principle laid out in the standards. This needs to be firmly embedded into all agencies and government departments involved in the youth justice system. We would encourage an approach that creates specific and accountable national standards for the whole system, not just YOTs and local partners.

The accountability of management boards and other local partnerships needs more focus than this draft provides, and there are other areas of practice needing more detail or inclusion.

We have been encouraged by our discussions with YJB senior management - we had a frank and positive discussion about the standards. We hope this will assist in strengthening these draft standards and in updating the relevant operational guidance, so that they support services in ensuring consistent and high-quality practice.

Finally, we would wish to stress the core aim of the youth justice system, as laid out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which is ‘to prevent offending by children and young people'. This aim needs to permeate everything included in the national standards."

Dr Laura Janes, legal director, Howard League for Penal Reform

"The removal of the timescales for sentence planning and resettlement is a mistake. There are no longer hard time scales to hold people to account for failure to have a resettlement plan.

Around one-fifth of calls to Howard League for legal support for children concerns their needs and rights around resettlement leaving prison. Without hard-edged timescales to use as leverage, it will be much harder to hold local authorities to account.

One of the concerns children face is not knowing where they will live sufficiently in advance of release.

In his annual report published in 2018, the chief inspector of prisons made the following observations in respect of resettlement from custody for children: ‘Too many children did not have their accommodation identified in time for their final review meeting. For some, accommodation was not provided until the day of release.

‘The only accommodation that could be found for one 15-year-old boy was nearly 200 miles away from his previous address and the establishment. He rejected the transport provided and refused to go. The establishment had to release him, but as his social worker was not at the gate to meet him, they then had to report him as a missing person to the police.'

The scenario above should not happen if statutory agencies comply with their legal duties. Removing the requirement to have an identified address no later than 10 days before release will make it harder to argue that failure at this point is unlawful - if anything, it should be earlier."

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