There has been a 73 per cent fall in the number of children in custody over the last 10 years, according to research.
There were 4,208 fewer custodial sentences handed out in 2018 than there was a decade ago – a fall of 73 per cent, the analysis by crime and justice specialists Crest has found.
"These trends, which are historically unprecedented, have been widely hailed as a success story, particularly during a period in which pressure on the adult justice system has continued to grow," said the report.
The analysis found two contributing factors to the decline in the numbers of first time entrants of children going into custody. Firstly, Youth Offending Teams are proactively keep children out of the criminal justice system with diversionary and preventative activities, Secondly, the revision of the ‘offences brought to justice’ target in 2008, and its subsequent removal in 2010.
The big falls in youth custody, the report says, were primarily driven by a reduction in the number of children entering the criminal justice system for the first time, rather than by a general liberalising of sentencing and/ or reduction in reoffending.
The research also highlights a significant regional variability in the declines in first time entrant (FTE) rates, and declines (or increases) in custody and proven offence rates.
It suggests fewer children are being unnecessarily drawn into the criminal justice system, and as a result criminalised, today than was the case a decade ago as a positive outcome. However, the report acknowledges that the contraction in police activity may have inadvertently had some negative consequences, for example, by reducing the opportunity for providing early intervention to first time offenders at risk of further offending.
The adult criminal justice system could learn most from the "front end" of the youth justice system in managing children who commit crime and in advising the courts.
"Indeed it is a damning indictment of public policy that despite a falling youth custodial population, the safety and overall quality of youth custodial institutions has declined dramatically over the last decade and reoffending rates have risen," said the report.
The report found:
- The majority of the decline in children in custody can be attributed to the fall in first time entrants, which was itself mainly down to changes at the pre-court phase, including the diversionary activity of YOTs and the police.
- The continuation of these declines has been sustained by a shift towards a more child-centred approach, including a much closer relationship between YOTs and magistrates than exists within the adult system.
- The trends in first time entrants and custody have left behind a smaller cohort that is more complex in terms of vulnerability/ needs and more serious in its offending.
- The ‘YOT model’, consisting of a multi-agency approach, the existence of a key worker and greater personalisation, has been an important driver of the successes achieved by the youth justice system.
- The government has failed to ‘cash the gains’ of a falling custodial population: in particular, the contraction of the youth custodial estate presents a missed opportunity to ensure a greater number of children are incarcerated in smaller, more localised institutions, rather than failing Young Offender Institutions (YOIs).
- Outcomes for children held in custody today are worse than was the case a decade ago.
- Despite an increase in emphasis on resettlement, structural changes have negatively impacted resettlement and rehabilitation, particularly for children leaving custody.
- There is significant local variability in the performance of YOTs, particularly with respect to. rates of FTEs and youth custody – a strengthening in the evidence base of ‘what works’ is needed to understand the key determinants of success and failure.
The report recommends that the YOT model up to age 25. Police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and probation should co-fund a bespoke community sentence specifically tailored to 18 – 25 year olds committing high volume, low harm offences, which would provide a more effective alternative to short prison sentences.
The report adds that the early termination of Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) contracts is an opportunity to reset the relationship between the probation service and the judiciary, learning from the approach taken within the youth system, where YOTs and magistrates show a high level of concordance and mutual trust.
Areas of the youth justice system which need reform include making prevention one of YOTs’ statutory functions and monitor the impact. Central government should dedicate greater priority and resources to strengthening the evidence base regarding diversion and children at risk of contact with the youth justice system, it adds.
Youth magistrates should not be allowed to issue custodial sentences of less than six months to children and custody budgets for the youth custodial estate should be devolved to Metro-Mayors, where appropriate, the report says.
The government should review the suitability of provision for all children held in secure accommodation – with a view to reconfiguring the youth custodial estate. As a first step, the report recommends an immediate moratorium on the closure of secure children’s homes and an explicit commitment to the closure of all Young Offender Institutions by 2025. At least 10 per cent of the £2.5 billion capital budget allocated to expanding adult prison places should be spent on upgrading the youth custodial estate.
Central government should clarify that the YOT model should be retained by local authorities and there should be a stronger role for the courts in rehabilitating children, the report adds.
Furthermore, Youth Justice Board targets around resettlement should be tightened, so that every child is guaranteed a personalised resettlement and transition plan, signed off no later than a month before release (and subsequently checked within a week of leaving custody). Government departments should pool budgets in order to ensure suitable accommodation is fully funded for children released from custody.
Finally, the YJB should dedicate more of its budget to researching and disseminating best practice about the comparative effectiveness, and cost, of interventions to reduce reoffending, the report concludes.
Examining the youth justice system: What drove the falls in first time entrants and custody, and what should we do as a result?