Avoiding a life of crime: how the youth justice system can work for young people
Sadiq Khan MP, Labour's Shadow Justice Secretary, in a speech to Barnardos will say:
I would like to thank you all for coming here this morning and to thank Barnardos for organising this event.
For almost 150 years Barnardos has been supporting our country’s most vulnerable children.
The basic sentiment that informs Barnardos work on youth justice and youth offending – that, regardless of their background or behaviour, all children, even the most troubled, deserve the opportunity to turn their lives around - is perhaps more relevant now than ever.
In recent weeks, following the riots which began in London and spread across the country, we have heard children described as ‘feral’, ‘out of control’ and a ‘drain on police time and our penal resources’. As Anne Marie [Carrie] has already pointed out on her blog last month – a 2008 Barnardos poll found that 54% of the public thought that British children were beginning to behave like animals. I’m afraid we can only imagine what that figure would be if the poll was carried out now.
Although the riots were by no means exclusively perpetrated by young people, the ages of some of those involved were as shocking as the crimes themselves. And despite the fact that the vast majority of young people, including those in riot-hit areas, are law abiding citizens, there is no doubt that the unrest we saw in August will shape debates we have from now on on youth provision, youth services and – the issue I’m going to focus on today - youth justice.
The fact that the majority of the public have supported tough sentences, even for young people involved, is understandable. Nothing can excuse or justify the actions of those – however young or old – who caused the unrest last month. People were scared in their homes, their places of work and on their streets and it is right that those who instilled that fear face the consequences of their actions.
But punishment is just one function of our criminal justice system, which must also protect the public, reform offenders and try to prevent people entering it in the first place.
For as much as people want perpetrators of the riots punished, they also want assurances, as far as is possible, that crimes of this sort - and others - won’t happen again.
In the aftermath of the unrest people I have met, in my own community in south London and elsewhere, while unequivocal in their condemnation, have also expressed a deep desire to explain and understand why it happened. Particularly in relation to the involvement of young people:
The solution to the problem of all youth offending, not just rioting, lies in the answers to questions like these.
We now have, I hope, an opportunity for a grown up debate on how to make our youth justice system work, for the young people within it and the communities it protects – by examining the root causes of youth offending, what preventative action can be taken, how to most appropriately punish and reform offenders and rehabilitate them back into our society.
In seeking root causes, it is tempting but futile to make sweeping generalisations about the backgrounds of young people who commit crime. About their parents, their family make up, or their ethnicity.
But we can look at the statistics. And they demonstrate the scale of the challenge we face:
It is this data that we need to focus on. And in government tackling this is what we meant when we said we would be tough on the causes of crime.
We understood that the right way to halt the unrestrained rise in crime we saw in the 1980s and early 1990s and to cut the number of young people in custody was to stop them turning to crime in the first place.
This meant several agencies working together to deliver a national strategy at a local level. So we tried to develop a joined up youth justice system, with the Home Office and later the MoJ, the Departments of Health and Education as well as the police and local government – all of this overseen by the Youth Justice Board.
Via the YJB, we armed prevention professionals with the resources they needed to intervene early to try to stop at risk young people from turning to crime. They worked with local Youth Offending Teams to deal with young offenders through the Youth Justice System – from arrest to diversionary options or to charge. Through to sentencing and to the management of their reintegration back into their community.
And we knew that early intervention can never be too early. That’s why we created schemes like Sure Start to support very young children and their families and why we developed targeted Family Intervention Projects to offer intensive, personalised support to parents and guardians to help provide the stability families need to bring up their children to be responsible citizens.
And we continued to support young people in their passage to adulthood: with Youth Inclusion Programmes for young teenagers most at risk of offending and the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to give older teenagers the option to stay in full time education.
Of cours e when we left office last year things weren’t perfect. There was still more work to do, but we did make significant progress in preventing youth crime. Over the last parliament alone we saw a:
So prevention is the key.
But prevention doesn’t always work. Once a crime is committed by a young person and he or she is caught, there is still the matter of “what next?”
For low level first offences committed by young people effective divergence mechanisms from the criminal justice system have been developed in recent years. Police can refer a low-level young offender to a triage programme instead of charging them if they admit their offence during police interview. Instead of going through the court system the young person will be sent to a Youth Offending Service office where an intervention plan to address their offending behaviour and make restorations to the victim will be drawn up and which they will be expected to follow. And if they don’t comply, they will be charged by the police. So there is a carrot and a stick.
However, for more serious crimes committed by young people, charge by the police and entry into the youth justice system where a legal punishment is passed down will be necessary.
Legal punishment of young people is, of course, controversial.
There are abolitionists who feel punishment for young people is wrong in all instances. And there are those that militate in favour of draconian punishments. In the riots calls for flogging, live ammunition and the stocks were common place according to the polls and the popular press. These were dismissed as lamentable by lawmakers of all parties and of course rightly so.
But public confidence in our justice system, including the youth justice system, does require some punishment for crimes committed to be inflicted on the perpetrator. And the debate about what is the most appropriate and proportionate punishment is best held in the centre, not at the fringes. I believe that most citizens – teachers, nurses, shopkeepers as well as politicians – have a balanced and moderate view of legal punishment and in government we did continue to develop and fund non-custodial forms to compliment custodial options.
Although we successfully brought the numbers of children requiring a custodial sentence more in line with international norms by providing productive alternatives for young offenders, custody is sometimes the only appropriate course of action.
But children given a custodial sentence in the secure estate are still just that: children.
It is only too clear to me when I visit Youth Offending Institutions and Secure Training Centres that I am dealing with children, even if their physical size makes them seem more grown up. They often have incomplete moral vocabulary, stunted emotional intelligence and a limited understanding of how the actions that led to their detention harmed victims and violated the covenants that allow our society to function.
So, when we do detain children, as well as addressing offender behaviour, it is right to invest in their education, their emotional development and general wellbeing. It is tragic to me when I see a young person who thrives under the stability offered to them in the secure estate, en gaged in healthy relationships, perhaps getting qualifications they would never have considered outside at hugely increased costs. And it reinforces to me that every crime committed by a child represents missed opportunities by multiple state agencies and the family, the community as well as the individual. That is why a joined-up approach between all these actors is necessary.
And in this sense, we shouldn’t view crime as transactional between two parties – the offender and the victim. Crime creates social volatility and affects everyone. It damages the communities and the society as a whole, particularly when committed by young people. It is right that the state, representing the people, recognises the duty to incapacitate, punish, reform and deter. But we must find the best ways do this – by looking at what works.
Community punishments are a valuable part of our youth justice system. They can sometimes be more effective in reforming young offenders and in reducing reoffending than short custodial sentences. We believe that tough community sentences for young offenders should be expanded and their funding guaranteed.
But youth justice projects are being squeezed or forced to shut down in the face of cuts to local authority budgets, NOMS, the YJB and YOTs. YOTs are taking hits of up to 60 per cent to non-statutory functions like prevention initiatives including working with gangs. As a result Intensive Intervention Projects are closing down or reducing their services. Already East Sussex, Gateshead, Haringey, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Peterborough, Southampton and Trafford have discontinued their projects!
This is drastically restricting the options available to magistrates and judges to pass down non-custodial community sentences. If they don’t have the confidence in the availability and efficacy of community punishment they will be forced to resort to the secure estate. We’re already hearing from magistrates that cuts to YOT budgets in just the last year are impacting their sentencing options.
It is economically misguided to diminish YOT and community justice budgets and is undermining the Government’s plan to reduce detention numbers.
Strategically incoherent and a false economy seems to sum up the current approach.
According to the Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour, it can cost up for £193,000 per year to hold a young person in a secure training centre. And for some it is the best option. But it is a very costly alternative to a community disposal for those for whom it is not necessary or proportionate.
Forcing magistrates and judges into that position because of short term cuts will not result in long term savings and is hugely detrimental to the future life chances of the children placed into custody and the communities who will be the victims of further crimes due to the reoffending of these young people.
I’ m proud that we reversed the unconstrained increase in youth detention by investing to tackle the causes of crime.
The number of under 18 year olds imprisoned has reduced by a third over the last three years. And during the same period we also saw a reduction in crime. But this took time. It took investment. And it took a concerted joined-up effort.
I’m glad that the institutional innovations of Labour – Youth Offending Teams and the Youth Justice Board – both exist (for the time being anyway) and are able to do their valuable work in providing pre-sentencing support and advice, and where necessary, working to ensure young people in the secure estate are treated as children and that the secure estate recognises their particular needs and vulnerabilities as far as possible.
I’ll admit, It’s not perfect. For example, we don’t do enough on sharing best practice. We don’t do enough on exploring which interventions work best by leveraging the work of criminologists and experts in the field to plan as rationally as possible.
And while we need to be careful not to inflate the scale of the problem of gangs, it is clear that there are areas where territorial gangs are proving to be a key driver of local criminality. This is where politicians need to listen to and work with the organisations engaging with young people in gangs who know what works to get them out.
Again, there is best practice out there – both overseas and domestically – into how best we tackle the gang problem, involving early interventions and targeting resources
But you don’t have to go far back to remember the problems that existed in the youth justice system prior to 1997. A system that was broken. A system that was still, to a great extent, predicated on Willy Whitelaw’s “short, sharp shock”.
The innovations of the last Labour government – intensive family intervention, a focus on education, recognition of a child’s unique needs – were a repudiation of the past and a genuine and heartfelt attempt to build a brighter future.
When this government unveiled their approach to youth justice there was excitement in the sector - that this may genuinely be something new from the Conservatives on crime reduction and a continuation of the progress we started.
But the Government plans to roll the YJB back into the Ministry of Justice which could risk unravelling some of the progress we’ve seen. Legitimate concerns that rationalisation of functions with NOMS will lead to the erosion of the child-centric approach the YJB began are being dismissed by this government, despite the House of Lords already voting to keep the YJB independent.
Independence, to a degree, insulates the Youth Justice Board from the worst ravages of populist rhetoric. Not entirely, but sufficiently to give them greater latitude than would be afforded a politician and a greater emphasis on what actually works to cut youth crime.
And why are they letting a public body with a proven track record of reducing crime go up in the smoke of the bonfire of the quangos? The decision was not based on a review of performance. As with everything, the decision seems largely based on costs, not value.
But cutting the YJB won’t save much money – around £100,000 over three years – and threatens, through undermining a joined-up youth justice system, to actually increase costs over the long term through higher criminality and the attendant costs to individuals and the state.
The system is not just under assault in that sense though. There are also deep concerns about funding the secure estate. The rate of detainee deaths in custody this year is far higher than in past years. The secure estate is having to absorb big cuts in budgets. And anything less than an obsessive focus on ensuring safety is not compromised is, to my mind, a severe abrogation of duty. We will continue to press the Prisons Minister on the matter of deaths of young people in custody and will work with the government and any other agencies to do what we can to ensure the secure estate is safe for detainees.
Basic safety and protection of well being, both physical and mental, should be the least we expect when it comes to treatment of young people who come into conflict with the law.
We also have a duty to prevent the all too frequent transition from youth offender to adult offender.
Although we were able to reduce it somewhat in government; the stubbornly high rates of reoffending amongst young people need to be urgently addressed.
We don’t only have a moral duty to try to rehabilitate young people and offer them a second chance at responsible citizenship. It is also an economic imperative.
The National Audit Office has estimated the cost to the UK economy of offending by young people as £11bn per year. If we are to bring this cost down, not to mention the unquantifiable emotional costs to victims of crime, we must invest in rehabilitation.
And when we’re dealing with young people, this does not just mean giving them the practical educational skills they will need to play a productive part in public life. It must also involve fostering an understanding about the consequences their actions have not only for their own lives but for the victims of their crimes. An understanding often lacking for many young offenders.
Restorative justice programmes that make young offenders take responsibility for their crimes can indeed be transformative justice. It can help develop the moral vocabulary, emotional intelligence and offer a level of reparation for the victim that punishment alone can’t always deliver.
Where restorative justice has been used, in Northern Ireland it has produced lower reconviction rates and higher satisfaction rates for victims. A 2010 Prison Reform Trust report shows almost a 50 per cent reduction in the reoffending rates of young offenders that took part in Northern Ireland’s restorative justice programme.
It is of course not appropriate for every crime or every young offender. A fifteen year old that kills or rapes as part of a gang initiation needs to be dealt with differently. But it is a mechanism that merits further emphasis within our youth justice system and something Labour would be committed to expanding where victims feel it would help.
So I can announce this morning that Labour will be seeking to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill so that courts have an explicit duty to consider making an order to participate in a restorative justice course. And if the government is true to its word that it wants to replicate Northern Ireland’s restorative justice programme, then supporting our amendment would be a positive step.
But their record to date makes me doubtful of their commitment.
It is not only the preventative innovations of the last government that are at risk – the Sure Start centres and youth clubs which are closing, family Intervention Projects being put at risk by ring fenced funding being removed, the EMA being scrapped, Youth Offending Teams being disbanded – rehabilitative measures are also taking a hit. My fear is that it will not only be young people whose lives will be wasted to crime that will suffer, but also communities up and down the country battling anti-social behaviour and youth offending.
The intolerable outbreak of crime we saw on the streets of our cities this summer shined a light on our youth justice system and the underlying reasons why young people sometimes feel they have nothing to lose and a lot to gain from crime.
We need to look carefully at what this light has uncovered – from the shadowy world of gangs to opportunities for work and training that young people need.
That is precisely why we’re reaching out – to experts, practitioners and young people themselves – for solutions.
I am chairing an extensive policy review looking at all aspects of criminal justice policy. My review will be analysing the evidence of what works to prevent young people from committing criminal acts in the first place and how we can best reform the ones that do. We will scratch below the surface to deal with the complex issues we know play a part – including deprivation, gang culture and exclusion. And how our youth justice system can be made to work for the young people within it.
I will need your help. The work of organisations like Barnardos and many others represented here today should inform youth justice policy so it is genuinely child-centric, evidence based and effective. We will also need to look at what lessons from the successes we’ve seen in youth justice can be transferred to the adult criminal justice system.
Youth crime went down in recent year s and youth custody levels fell. So there is something distinctive about the youth justice system which shows we can reduce crime and imprisonment at the same time. Unlike the adult penal system.
The relationship between custody and crime is never simple, but I don’t think it’s immodest to say that an important factor was the investments Labour made, in money and in effort, to prevent and deter youth crime.
Casting simplistic assertions about a ‘feral underclass’ as Ken Clarke has about those involved in riots is lazy. This kind of language absolves people from responsibility for their actions, implying that somehow they had no self control or no choice. Instead we will be looking at how we can make young people responsible citizens who understand the consequences of their actions and have the opportunities and the means to stay away from crime. But at the same time, have a youth justice system that effectively punishes and reforms those who do commit offences.
It is a moral and economic imperative to stop young lives being wasted to crime. The vast majority of young people want to play a productive, not destructive role in society. It is all our responsibility to make that happen and to help reform those who are struggling to do so – for everyone’s sake.