Prevention, not detention, must come first

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Children's Secretary Ed Balls last week told CYP Now that he wants to "strengthen the role the youth justice system can play in preventing youth crime." His words were welcome. But they need to be backed up with action.

As we report this week, youth offending teams across England and Wales remain utterly in the dark over whether they will have funding to continue prevention projects beyond next March (p6). This is when the £45m provided through the Youth Justice Board over three years back in 2005 is to cease. The Association of Youth Offending Team Managers says up to 1,200 prevention jobs are under threat. Workers are leaving programmes that revolve around parenting support and early intervention with children as young as eight because they don't know if their job will exist beyond the next six months. And so a first raft of experienced prevention practitioners who have built good models of practice is being lost. The emerging exodus is forcing many of these projects, which get stuck in with young people at risk of committing crime, to close down.

The situation is exacerbated by a lack of clarity between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice over who has responsibility for what with regard to youth justice. It's a farcical situation, brought into sharp focus by the fact that the secure estate for children and young people, as we reveal, has now reached full capacity (p1).

Many young offenders, at the harder edge of criminal activity, belong in custody. But for others, it's not the answer, which is indicated by the fact that reoffending rates among young people released from custody remain so high. But effectiveness of prevention schemes will be judged on reducing the number of first-time entrants to the youth justice system. Unfortunately, this is undermined by factors beyond the youth justice system's control, such as the attitude of sentencers and police targets for offences brought to justice, which has increased convictions for minor offences.

The government needs urgently to support its early intervention rhetoric with some real money to tackle youth crime if our youth custody crisis isn't to spiral with the next generation. If tragedies like this summer's murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones don't make this clear, nothing will.

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