The number of children in custody is now at its lowest level ever, but those youngsters who are sentenced to periods of incarceration are among the most vulnerable and have the most complex needs. It is right, indeed long overdue, that major changes are on the way for this area of sentencing policy.
The Justice Secretary, Justine Greening MP, recently announced her acceptance of recommendations from the outgoing Chair of the Youth Justice Board, Catholic Peer Lord Tom McNally, that the current systems and buildings are no longer fit for purpose and need fundamental change. In a package of measures to bring stronger, clearer governance to the youth justice system, Ms Greening announced the creation of a new Youth Custody Service as a distinct arm of the Prison and Probation Service, with its own Director answering to the Youth Justice Board and to Ministers.
This move will make that individual accountable in a very direct, personal and professional way for the standards of care delivered by the new Youth Custody Service and the outcomes that it achieves for the vulnerable youngsters in its care. Those youngsters in custody are older than in the past, 98% are aged 15 to 17; and are in custody for more violent offences. The proportion in custody for violent offences, robbery and sexual assaults increased from 52% in 2011 to 68% last year.
Without the new reforms and improvements in both the quality of the youth justice estate and the way in which it is run, many have felt for some years that such children in custody had no real hope of achieving the sustained rehabilitation and support that they need to turn away from crime once they are released back into society.
The Government has also published the recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, set up by the previous Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, and which, over the last two years, has been visiting and reviewing Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres. Their early finding, prompting the Government’s significant announcements, was that the youth custody estate was on the edge of coping with the young people for whose welfare it is responsible, and that staff at many of the centres they visited lacked the skills necessary to deliver good behaviour management and adequate care. Report after report found that there had been a clear deterioration in the quality of provision, a demoralised staff group, insufficiently good leadership and an increase in violence. The system, in short, was failing those for whom it was responsible.
Nearly 50% of these vulnerable young offenders, albeit themselves often violent, report that they have felt unsafe in custody, open to physical violence. That is an unacceptable position in which to place young people for whose welfare the state is completely responsible whilst they are in custody and for whose constructive return to society the state should be working.
The Youth Custody Improvement Board challenged Ministers to define what they believe the youth custody system is supposed to achieve, without which clear objectives it would continue to be impossible to assess and measure the extent to which it is delivering. The Board also recommended that the youth custody estate be brought together into one organisation to ensure that a shared vision is developed and accepted by the entire service through the provision of specialist advice from the centre.
A training programme for existing staff will be crucial to raising the game of the new Youth Custody Service; and it will need to recruit, retain and motivate individuals with the professional skills and experience to deliver the strong leadership necessary at each of the custodial establishments for which it is responsible.
Despite political rhetoric about punishing young offenders so that they learn the error of their ways, there are today just over 850 under 18 year olds in custody, compared to just under 3,000 in 2008. This has got to be good news because every episode of imprisonment of a child has to been as a failure of society to address the offending behaviour, since in all but the most extreme cases a youngster will have had to establish a pattern of repeat offending in order to receive a custodial rather than a community sentence. Another surprising fact is that of the 850 youngsters in custody only around 25 are young women which, given their spread around the country, inevitably raises additional challenges as to how to accommodate them so that they are not alone.
But, although there is data about the numbers, genders, and offending records of the youngsters in custody, it seems there is little information about their welfare. For example, there is little information about the mental health of young prisoners nor about the treatment provided to them or its effectiveness. Compiling such data must be seen as an urgent priority for it is inevitably a prerequisite to identifying what treatment would be most effective for those in need. There is also a real need better to understand why black and minority ethnic young people make up a disproportionately high percentage of those in custody. Is it because they have a higher rate of offending, or because they are more likely than white youngsters to receive custodial sentences?
Poor physical healthcare for inmates and a poor standard of education provision have also been identified within the existing arrangements.
It is a sign of just what a mess the youth custody arrangements have been allowed by successive governments to become that such basic issues have not been addressed until now; and it must be an urgent priority of the current Government to deliver rapid reforms and an improved level of care. For those who care about the dignity of young offenders and their prospects of rehabilitation into productive and flourishing lives, it is important that every pressure be kept upon politicians to deliver on their promises and implement the reforms that have been recommended.
If you share this column’s concern, then, as ever, do consider sending a copy of this article to your local Member of Parliament asking his or her to challenge Ministers to deliver real change, not just rhetoric.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Universe of 12th March 2017.
Cllr Chris Whitehouse KCSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West).