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Fewer children in criminal justice system but vulnerabilities are more complex

A “whole-system approach” involving a range of public agencies is needed to help tackle the complex vulnerabilities that many of the children entering the criminal justice system have experienced, a report has urged.

The justice select committee sets out the complex vulnerabilities many of these children face, including mental health, social exclusion and substance misuse issues. As a result, the committee recommends that the courts and custodial authorities place a much greater emphasis on a “whole system approach” involving a range of public agencies such as educational, psychological and social services beyond those of the criminal justice system alone.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee said: “The smaller number of children coming through the system these days tend to have more complex vulnerabilities and so higher needs. Many have suffered neglect and abuse which have led to mental health issues or learning difficulties. This is not an excuse for their behaviour, but it does go some way to explaining it.”

The report highlights that the number of children entering the system, as well as those receiving custodial sentences, had reduced considerably in the past decade. However, the seriousness of the crimes these children have committed has got worse, particularly for violence-against-the-person offences.

The raw number of crimes committed remains lower than a decade ago, but the proportion of violence-against-the-person offences has increased by ten percentage points compared with other crimes, the report adds.

The committee welcomed the dramatic, long-term reduction in the raw numbers of children being sentenced for crimes in the youth courts of England and Wales. In 2009, the number of children aged between 10 and 17 receiving a caution or a sentence (both of which can mean a child has ‘a record’, with implications for later life) was around 130,000. By 2019 this had fallen to 21,700 – a drop of 83%. In 2009, the number of those sentenced to a custodial period was 2,625 but by March 2020 it had dropped to 737.

This reduction is in part due to the role of measures that divert children from courts, which are known as ‘diversion schemes’. These have reduced the number of children being formally processed through the criminal justice system. These out of court disposals can include a referral to social or psychiatric services as well as treatments for substance abuse, personality disorders or learning difficulties.

Most experts in the field thought out of court disposals contribute to better outcomes for children. Furthermore, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, cited in the committee report, said that cases it had inspected indicated that short-term re-offending rates were lower following community resolutions compared with cautions or convictions.

The committee took evidence from the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, who said that of the children currently entering the justice system, “70% have mental health difficulties and 70% have communications difficulties”.

Previous Chair of the Youth Justice Board Charlie Taylor added: “Though childrens’ backgrounds should not be used as an excuse for their behaviour, it is clear that the failure of education, health, social care and other agencies to tackle these problems contributes to their presence in the youth justice system”.

The committee recommends that more and better data on out of court disposals should be gathered by the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board, demonstrating how many children benefit from such disposals, their impact on re-offending and on future health and education outcomes.

The report also urges the government to explain why more than half of the children currently detained by the state are from ethnic minority backgrounds when this group makes up only 18 percent of the overall population of children. It calls on the Ministry of Justice to provide detailed research into the matter “including the cause of disproportionate imprisonment”. The MoJ should set out actions to be taken and the resources to be allocated for the work.

Further concerns were raised that the percentage of all children in custody, but on remand, remained high. In 2018/19 they totalled 28% of the average total of children incarcerated, which was the highest proportion in the last decade. Furthermore, two thirds of children remanded to custody were not subsequently given a custodial sentence, and, of these, nearly half (48%) were acquitted.

The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the use of remand in the youth justice system, which the committee welcomes, however, it urges more detail on this review and a date by which it would be completed.

Race disproportionality also applies to children held on remand - in 2019, 57% of children on remand were from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background while BAME children made up just 18% of children in the general population.

The report also noted concerns from some quarters that the youth court system “does not adequately meet the need of children and is not fit for purpose”. The Justice Committee report said everyone should be able to understand and fully participate in proceedings. It cites evidence given to it by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists which emphasised the importance of a scheme whereby intermediaries form a bridge between the court and vulnerable young defendants – the Registered Intermediary Scheme.

Finally, the report explores how delays in court proceedings adversely affected children who had their 18th birthday while awaiting their day in court. This has meant they are then prosecuted in adult courts, where sentences are longer. Other consequences include losing the anonymity which is enshrined in youth courts.

The committee said that punishment should fit the crime; proceedings and sentencing should be carried out on the basis of the circumstances prevailing at the time the offence was committed. It recommended that those who turn 18 while waiting for proceedings against them to begin should automatically be dealt with in the youth justice system and sentenced as children.

Sir Bob Neill, Chair of the Justice Committee said: “If we want better outcomes for these children – and that also means lower re-offending rates, which is better for society – we need to adopt a much broader approach. The criminal justice system needs to draw on a range of public agencies for help in this area. We need to bring in social, health and psychological services. Much greater priority should be given to this whole system approach in the development of future policy and practice.”

Children and Young People in Custody (Part 1): Entry into the youth justice system

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