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27 January 2011

Blog: RIP the Youth Justice Board

The YJB was created in 1998 and its demise was announced on 15th October 2010, one of many quangos that this government felt was no longer needed. But what has it achieved and what are the threats posed by its abolition?

Penelope Gibbs, Director of the Out of Trouble programme for the Prison Reform Trust writes for The Barrister.

The setting up of the Board was one of the reforms to the youth justice system brought in by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Act introduced new legislation affecting under 18s, and a new national body to oversee the system and local youth offending teams.

The tragedy of New Labour was that it did not take the opportunity to radically reform the youth justice system when it came to power. The government could have raised the age of criminal responsibility to the European norm of 14, they could have set up a system similar to the Scottish Children’s panel system whereby children who commit offences are dealt with as welfare not criminal cases. They could have overhauled remand legislation so that children were not deprived of their liberty using the same criteria as adults. Instead they kept our adversarial system whereby children are subject to a very similar criminal process to adults, acquire criminal records and the label of criminal.

The emphasis of the 1998 act was on confronting young offenders with the consequences of their offending and on getting parents to take responsibility for their children’s criminal behaviour. The YJB was set up to monitor the performance of the youth justice system as a whole, advise on preventing offending, collect and publish information, identify and disseminate good practice and draw up standards for service delivery.

Only after the YJB was planned was a new responsibility added – to supervise and commission the custodial places for under eighteen year olds. The YJB has delivered on the original vision. But it was always limited by that original vision.

The means of reducing youth offending lie mostly outside the criminal justice system. 39% of children in custody have previously experienced abuse or neglect, 11% have attempted suicide and nearly half have been excluded from school. The YJB has no power to deal with any of these issues, despite the fact that they underlie offending and reoffending. It has designed and paid for programmes to prevent children offending. But these programmes have been time limited and focussed on those who have already started getting into trouble with the law.

Youth offending teams were set up at the same time as the YJB and they have been inextricably linked. The YJB has monitored their performance and championed good practice. YOTs were innovative. Embedded in local authorities, they brought together probation and police officers, social and health workers in a kind of team around the child. Where they work, they bring together all areas of expertise needed to help children turn their lives around. And they have access to other important local authority services such as housing and education.

YOTs will stay but two important achievements of the last two years are under threat with the abolition of the YJB. In the early years of the Board, the number of under-18 year olds who became embroiled in the youth justice system increased. This was partly due to policies outside the Board’s control. Police had ‘offences brought to justice’ targets. These targets encouraged officers to take formal action against children who had committed relatively minor crimes. So much so, magistrates complained at having to deal with children who had been involved in playground fights or minor shoplifting. The government street crime initiative of 2002 led to even more young people being convicted of crimes and to an increase in the child custody population. But recently both these trends have been reversed.

The number of under eighteen year olds who got a reprimand, warning or conviction fell from 110, 286 in 2006/7 to 79,260 in 2008/9 – still way too many, but an improvement. The number of children sentenced to custody also dropped significantly from 3,195 in July 2003 to 2,143 in the same month this year.

Under-18 year olds were the only sub-group of the custody population to reduce under New Labour. Neither the fall in first time entrants nor the fall in the child custody population was entirely due to the YJB’s actions or rhetoric, but the Board has had a strong influence. They have bent the ear of central Government, of youth offending teams and of magistrates and lawyers, arguing that it is more effective to keep most low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and most medium-level offenders out of prison.

The Prison Reform Trust and the YJB have had an informal partnership in trying to reduce excessive use of custody in particular areas. It is one of the more hidden but shameful aspects of our criminal justice system that there is post code sentencing. In one court a perpetrator is more likely to get a custodial sentence for, say burglary, than in another. In Merthyr Tydfil in 2008/9, 20.2% of the under-18 year olds convicted in court were sentenced to custody; in Newcastle, only 1.6% were.

The YJB and the Prison Reform Trust have targeted high custody areas. Frances Done, Chair of the YJB, has written to all local authority chief executives and to chairs of youth courts encouraging them to compare their use of custody with other areas. No-one likes to look worse than their neighbours and this process has prompted local authority managers and magistrates to ask why their areas appear to imprison more than others. The soul searching involved has led to changes in practice which have in turn led to reductions in the local use of custody.

Before its demise, the YJB may have time to bring about the culmination of this process – by getting local areas to take on responsibility for the payment of child custody. At the moment, custody is a “free good” for local authorities. If a child is remanded or sentenced to custody, they do not pick up the bill. Child custody is extremely expensive, ranging from £70,000 to over £200,000 pa per child. Local authorities have little positive financial incentive to prevent children escalating through the youth justice system into custody.

Around a third of children in custody are looked after children. If budgets for child custody were delegated to local authorities, the authority would save money every time they could persuade a judge to use an alternative to custody. They could then use that money on preventing offending, or on supporting those who are embroiled in the system. The Prison Reform Trust has long campaigned for this reform and we hope that through our and the YJB’s efforts, it may feature in the green paper being published by the Ministry of Justice in early December.

Ironically it is the duty the YJB was never meant to have – commissioning child custody places – which may be most missed. Before the YJB, the commissioning of child custody places was localised and often chaotic, with places managed by many different organisations – local authorities, private companies and the Prison Service. When the YJB took on commissioning all under-18 places, it was able to take a strategic view of the places needed, to tailor the placement offered to the individual child and to ensure minimum standards across the estate.

Recently, the YJB was lobbying to take the management of young offender institutions out of the Prison Service, to ensure that child custody is really dedicated to the needs of children. When the YJB goes, it looks as though this will be completely reversed, with the commissioning of child custody places being taken over by the national offender management service (NOMS), an organisation whose primary role is to supervise adult offenders. Let’s hope the government realises this would be a retrograde step.

Few who work in the youth justice system believe in criminalising children for minor misdemeanours, or in imprisoning children for non-violent crimes. If this government puts its faith in practitioners, the good work done by the YJB will not be lost.

Penelope Gibbs