The last two weeks have seen a couple of developments in the youth justice field.

Both have suggested a change in the way we do custody for children.

So, where next for youth custody?…

The two developments I mentioned are the YJB stats report for December 2015 and the Interim Report of the government’s youth justice review. (Part of MoJ plan)

Today there are approximately 1000 young people (under 18s) in youth custody because they’ve been sentenced or remanded. Only seven years ago this number was a little over 3000.

This trend was confirmed this week by the YJB’s stats report for December 2015.

In fact in the month between November and December 2015 the figure dropped by 6.3%.

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The credit for this situation, in my view, goes to colleagues in Youth offending Teams and allied agencies working hard, particularly in the development of prevention work and engaging young people through pre-court disposals.

Credit too to the hard-working folks in secure children’s homes, STCs and YOIs for their efforts to make custody a place of rehabilitation, not mere containment.

Youth Justice Review

Charlie Taylor’s review of youth justice is well underway and issued its interim report last week.

He acknowledged the progress made and the associated fall in numbers in custody. Then he went further, suggesting a few changes in the way youth custody is done.

His initial proposals are:

– Educational emphasis – Increasing the number of hours education received each week from the current average of 17, in order to achieve the desired 30 hours.

– Reading, writing & ‘rithmetic – Re-balancing the weight of education to spend more time addressing the basics of English and maths – not just vocational training

– Leadership & autonomy – Increasing the autonomy of those leading youth custodial establishments to give them greater control over recruitment, training and the commissioning of services

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– Reduction in unit size – Smaller secure units located in the regions – referred to in the report as “secure schools.”

– Rehabilitative culture – The creation of a custodial culture in such units with an emphasis on productive and therapeutic environments.

– Better resettlement – Improved links with non-custodial agencies in order to encourage better continuity and resettlement on release.

In my view, these initial intentions are laudable and have a lot to recommend them.

They are not that different from the suggestions made on this site some time ago. Read my “Children’s Prisons – A Manifesto” – here.

What’s the catch?…

As with any government reform programme, it’s not over till it’s over. And it’s not over! The final review report is due in July…

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths (adapted)

Here are a few things to bear in mind in the meantime:

  • Interim only – this is an interim report and not the finished article. The report itself acknowledges that this process of thought and policy development isn’t done yet.
  • Vision versus reality – whilst the tentative vision laid out in this document is encouraging, there are potentially huge feasibility issues to surmount before the vision is realised. Not least…
  • Dosh – the infrastructural changes and raw cash investment required to establish small regional secure units is considerable (in light of this the closure of 81 secure children’s homes beds in the last few years was a woeful error).
  • Politics – selling a vision of essentially “nicer” custodial experiences to a skeptical public might be a tall order. Ironically, though, it may be eased a little by the recent disgraceful staff conduct at Medway STC.

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Final word…

There’s one glaring problem with this otherwise very encouraging proposal for reforming youth custody…

Education isn’t the (only) answer – Laudable though his report is for the future of the secure estate, where it goes awry is in the conception of “secure schools.” Education, for the most part, is absolutely not what these kids need.

If we think education – as it’s commonly defined – will fix the damaged and downtrodden kids in this system, we’re wrong. Very wrong.

If not education, then what?  Therapy? Yes.  Training? Yes.  Consistent care and developmentally sensitive interventions? Yes.  Help to deal with troubled histories?  Yes.  All of that.

In my view all of this is education. As long as we redefine what education is, it can be central and maybe even lend its name to the building – a secure school

Maybe this is the inevitable price of asking an educationalist to examine criminological issues?

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© Jonny Matthew 2016 (& June 2018)