Why Youth Offending Teams should also handle 18-21 year olds…

I’ve spent over 20 years working in Youth Justice. I love it.

But there are some things that I think need to change about the way we deal with young people who offend. Here’s one of them…

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ChrisHepburn (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ChrisHepburn (adapted)

Why 17 is too young to stop calling it YOUTH justice…

England and Wales has a great system for working with young people who offend. They are called Youth Offending Teams, or YOTs.

These came about following the 1998 Crime & Disorder Act. They are multi-agency teams of professionals with one focus – the prevention of offending.

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Among the people working in YOTs are:

  • Social workers
  • Youth workers
  • Probation officers
  • Mental Health workers
  • Substance misuse specialists
  • Education welfare officers
  • Parenting workers
  • Police officers
  • Support workers, and
  • Volunteers…

This model of working with young people who offend has proven very successful in recent years.

The renewed emphasis on pre-Court interventions, along with prevention programmes to work with those at risk of offending has meant a huge drop in young people entering the system.

      In short, the Youth Offending Team model of working to prevent offending is… well, working!

Time to extend the remit…

In a recent post about care leavers, we discussed the reasons why extending the age of leaving care to 21 was a good thing.

I think the same principle applies to young people who offend. YOTs should stay with them until they reach 21.

Here’s why:

  • Falling between the gaps – currently young people who reach 18 transfer to the adult criminal justice system. But the truth is, it’s too big a jump – and often they don’t make it. The Probation Service deals with adults. Many 18 year olds find the move to probation impossible. They’re not ready for it. Neither, in my view, is the Probation Service. Kids default on appointments, breach their Court orders and the offending cycle begins again.
  • Adult body / teenaged brain – it is now widely accepted that young people’s brains go on developing well after their bodies have reached adulthood. In other words, the body is an adult one at 18 or so. But the brain does not reach maturity until it is around 25 years old. The immediate and radical move to an adult system may seem right chronologically, but the maturity of the individual is rarely ready for it. So both the system itself and the young person start off at a disadvantage.

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  • Multi-agency is best – the YOT model works. It works because it has the flexibility to respond with expertise to the needs of each young person. Probation interventions, by necessity, have to be about programmes, quick turnover of cases and “offenders” taking responsibility for their own compliance. This is not a good match for people aged 18-21. They need something more bespoke. Also, the mix of professionals in YOTs means quicker and easier access to the right services.
  • Creative & relational is good too – YOTs can exercise more creative, responsive and flexible approaches. These work best with young people with histories of abuse and other forms of trauma or maltreatment. Those who remain involved with YOTs to the age of 17 – the repeat offenders – tend to be the most damaged. They are also the ones in need of the most help – tailored help. Probation does not have the resources or the expertise to provide this.

Final word…

So, what we need, in my view, is a system that extends the remit of Youth Offending Teams to the age of 21.

Maybe these older kids will need a slightly different YOT approach; one that’s a step up from the younger ones. But they definitely need something that can still be responsive and mulit-agency in nature.

The other thing they need, of course, is money…

What do you think?…

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

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