Editorial: A tough decade for the youth justice system

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The youth justice system is under heightened scrutiny as we approach the tenth anniversary of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which created the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB) alongside local youth offending teams (YOTs).

As CYP Now revealed last week, YJB chief executive Ellie Roy is leaving against her wishes. And this week, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Ten years of Labour's Youth Justice Reforms: An Independent Audit, issues a scathing verdict of the system (see p3).

Spending on youth justice has increased in real terms by 45 per cent since 2000/01 while government targets to reduce youth crime levels, first-time entrants to the youth justice system and reoffending rates have all been missed. It would be disingenuous and naive to blame this squarely on the YJB and the 156 YOTs. Police targets for offences brought to justice and the now-discarded Respect agenda have played a big part in fuelling the numbers of children entering the criminal justice system. This is why the YJB has had to allocate two-thirds of its budget to purchasing custodial places and only five per cent on the prevention work it has championed. Missed government targets come despite the work of the YJB and YOTs, not because of them.

But the centre's report concludes that the configuration of YOTs needs to be rethought. One suggestion is to put them under the statutory remit of local authority children's services departments. This would mirror locally the shift in responsibility of the YJB at a national level towards the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Greater alignment between YOTs and children's services is a good thing: it should help ease the transition for a young person leaving a youth offending team to use other services. But if YOTs are to continue to innovate and engage the country's most difficult young people, they must be allowed a degree of independence, rather than be subsumed entirely into mainstream children's services.

The Youth Crime Action Plan, due out at the beginning of July, is bound to address these issues. It should also tackle the problem of accommodation for young offenders. YOTs are funded currently by five statutory partners: police, probation, education, children's social care and health. The plan should as a matter of urgency make housing the sixth in order to provide stability in chaotic young lives and keep prison numbers down.

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