An unproductive justice system drives up costs

John Freeman
Friday, June 24, 2011

In all sorts of areas, the savings imposed by the Treasury are driving government policy, except, of course, when it is unacceptable to the tabloid press.

We now have yet another coalition U-turn, with the Justice Secretary's plans to reduce the prison population thrown out. One consequence is that he now has to find another £100m in savings. What does this mean for young people who offend? One worry is that the synthetic tabloid fury will be diverted to young people – "yobs, louts and the Asbo culture" – leading to right-wing political pressure for yet harsher sentences for young people. Another worry is that some of the £100m will come from the youth justice budget.

Keeping one young person in custody can cost around £140,000 according to the New Economics Foundation, not counting all the costs associated with courts, the probation service and police. It makes financial sense to invest in preventive services such as the youth service. Unfortunately, the government is still not sufficiently joined up to transfer spending towards services that reduce offending. Instead, local authorities are being forced to reduce spending on youth services simply to balance their year-on-year budgets – a classic example of short-term saving leading to large costs in future years.

And I was startled to read recently that as many as 250,000 children were arrested in 2009, while only one in three were sentenced. The Howard League for Penal Reform believes too many children are arrested because of the police "targets culture" – as children are easier to arrest. But whatever the cause, needless arrests can be very damaging. If a child was offending, no further action being taken might lead them to think they have "got away with it". Worse, if the arrested child was not offending, the arrest itself would be traumatic. All this unproductive police activity must be expensive, diverting officers from more serious matters – and even from supporting youth work.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant Read his blog at cypnow.co.uk/freemansthinking

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