Custody for kids: good & bad. Part 2…

Prison gates

Photo ©Jonny Matthew

In our last post on this subject, we looked at some of the system problems currently at play in the world of youth justice.

Specifically in the kind of secure provision for children who end up in custody.

We showed that closing beds in secure children’s homes is counter-productive. And that building a massive secure college makes no sense and has now, thankfully, been abandoned.

So what next?

A closer look at what the children’s custodial system must do if it is to succeed in its mission…

How to reduce re-offending by children leaving custody…

The key issue here is around what the aim of custody is. Or what it should be.

Whilst there are still many who believe custody should be mainly about punishment, we know that on its own this achieves very little.

And it certainly doesn’t deter from re-offending. 71% offend again within a year of leaving.

As Sir David Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, said on radio 4 this week, “Prison is punishment.”

My contention is that custody must be, first and foremost, about addressing causes. This, in my view, is the only hope of achieving sustainable rehabilitation.

Part 2 – The individual…

For children to end up in custody, they have to offend seriously or persistently.

There’s another thing they have to do too. They have to be unresponsive to what the youth justice system has to offer by way of help before they get to the point of being locked up.

Youth Offending Teams now offer a range of pre-court and pre-custody options:

  • Prevention programmes that support families, schools, other agencies and individuals to divert troubled children away from the criminal system before their behaviour escalate
  • Triage or bureau systems that sift cases to ensure that those who offend and who qualify are dealt with outside of the youth court
  • Restorative justice approaches that help children understand, confront and address the impact of their offending
  • Cautions and caution-plus schemes where those who admit their offence can be helped without the need to go to court
  • Community sentences which offer a broad range of programmes, services and accountability to address offending by young people

With very few exceptions, only when all this fails to trigger change does a child end up threatened with going to custody. So they have to have offended seriously or persistently.

Targeting development…

Two things have to happen for custody to work:

  1. The custodial environment itself has to be right
  2. The interventions provided there must address causes not just crimes

We addressed the environment issue when talking about the system in our last post.

To know what interventions to invest in, we must know what issues children come into custody with:

  • 79% of the most prolific young offenders have been or are still involved with social services               
  • 42% had suffered significant bereavement or loss
  • 5% had run away from home
  • 41% had been on the child protection register
  • 40% grew up in areas with signs of obvious drug use/dealing
  • 48% had witnessed violence at home
  • 55% were known to have been abused – many more were suspected victims of abuse
  • 57% had had contact with mental health services
  • Over a third can’t read, write or add up properly

(Wales figures 2012:17-18)

Boy in Handcuffs - iStock_000021452491XSmall

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths

Clearly, punishment alone will not change these things that fuel offending. So what will?

Safety, assessed need, careful treatment planning, high staff to child ratios, consistent care, skilled professionals offering sequenced work to help young people unlearn the lessons of their history so far. And lots and lots of patience.

Few, if any, of these can be offered in YOIs. All of them can be offered in secure children’s homes (SCH).

This is why closing a quarter of the SCH beds since 2009 is a huge mistake (YJB, 2009:7).

Each bed closed removes the potential for another child to receive the rare and potentially life-changing opportunity to change.

Final thought…

Money is tight. Custody is expensive. So let’s continue with efforts to divert children from going there.

But for those who do, let’s give them the best chance of reducing offending post-release – place them in small units where the care they’ve lacked hitherto can be offered and the causes of crime can be addressed effectively.

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

 

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