The latest youth justice statistics present both good and bad news.

Numbers in custody are down. But instances of restraint and self-harm have increased.

In these austere times, and in any other times, fewer kids in prison is a good thing. But each young person is a lot more than a unit cost to the state. They’re not “prisoners”, they’re not “inmates”; they’re not even “young offenders.”

They are children first, offenders second.

There are some lessons the government and the secure estate need to learn in order to better serve young people.

Lessons for the secure estate…

The fewer young people go to custody, the better. That’s a given. Prison is no place for most children.

That said, some young people can really benefit from secure care.

So how do we balance these two issues: reducing the unnecessary use of custody for young people, whilst ensuring that those who need it get a gold-standard service?

The balancing act…

There are two bits to this:

1. The SYSTEM: What to do, now that the numbers in the system (and therefore in custody) are falling

2. The INDIVIDUAL: What to do to ensure those who do end up inside, get the most effective treatment possible

Part 1 – The system…

A couple of facts from the current YJ statistics:

– Of 43,601 young people sentenced in England and Wales in 2012/13, 2,780 were given an immediate custodial sentence – a rate of 6.4%, compared to 6.7% in 2011/12.

– 69.3% of those who left custody reoffended within a year, compared to 72.6% the previous year – the lowest level since current recording methods began in 2000. 

So, fewer young people are entering custody than was previously the case. And slightly fewer are re-offending post release. Neither shift is massive, but both are positive.

The reduction in the number of first time entrants to the YJ system – almost 9000 fewer in the last two years – means those who do enter it are more complex and challenging to help. Because they get through despite the system being better equipped to divert them.

Secure beds for young people…

In recent times, the Youth Justice Board has reduced the number of secure beds significantly. There has been a 24% reduction in secure children’s home beds since 2009. A total of 53 beds have been cut (Source: YJB, 2009:7).

This means that the capacity for the system to deal with the most vulnerable young people, has been cut by a quarter. This is a mistake.

Re-offending from secure children’s homes is lower than from YOIs. So why not cut the beds from YOIs and leave secure children’s homes beds alone?

The solution…

This is the easy bit – at least in principle…

Don’t take lower custody numbers across the board as a reason to cut beds for the most vulnerable.

In practice what does this mean? Easy again: commission more, not fewer, secure children’s homes beds. They have the following advantages:

– They are better equipped to deal with complexity – closer inter-agency working, better communications, team-around-the-child approach, etc.

– They have much better staff to child ratios

– There are higher chances of relational working being able to unpick the real causes of crime, because the attention given to each child is greater

– Improved wrap-around care in the custodial setting: night checking, lower staff response times, better awareness of individual needs

– Better re-offending rates – the whole point of the system!

In short, it’s a no-brainer.

The spurious costs argument…

The costs argument is never far away in such discussions. Understandably so. We have a responsibility to safeguard the public purse and use its resources wisely.

So one can easily see why paying around £800 per week, per young person in a YOI, is favoured over paying £4500 per week in a secure children’s home (SCH). A YOI bed is around 18% of the price of an SCH bed.

For that you get:

– Considerable numbers of undiagnosed mental health problems remaining hidden

– Very little meaningful therapy or effective work to address the causes of offending and therefore halt re-offending

– A revolving door of young people entering-leaving-re-entering custody

– Increased gang culture with associated bullying and abuse problems

– An in-custody drug problem

– Minimal meaningful educational provision

You have to spend to save.

And you have to spend when the “offender” is younger, in order to avert the onset of yet another criminal career emerging from an ineffective prison system.

Final word…

The priority for any system intent on reducing crime, should be to target the causes. With large numbers of offenders, small staff ratios and minimal treatment and therapy provision, this is just not possible.

So if young people are to be placed in custody, they should be housed where the issues that have short-circuited their lives hitherto, can be dealt with effectively.

The reality is, that if we want to divert complex and challenging young people from crime, we need to place them in secure children’s homes. Not in YOIs.

So, instead of building a 320 bed “secure college“, let’s build what we know will work – secure children’s homes.

What do you think?…

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

Related previous posts:

– Custody for kids – good & bad: part 2

– Why secure care can work…for some

– Child first, offender second…

– Crime & punishment 3 – “Give a damn!”

– Crime & punishment 2 – cause & effect…

– Crime & punishment 1 – Why punishment isn’t enough…

– Troubled youth: re-writing the ending…

Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

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