Reflecting on youth justice

Earlier this week I spoke at the Youth Justice Convention 2019 in Birmingham. I really wanted to use this opportunity to recognise the progress we have collectively made in diverting children and young people away from the criminal justice system over the last decade. Focusing on those on the cusp of offending has been central to these frankly astonishing achievements. For me this success illustrates what can be achieved when central government departments work together, and crucially, work alongside local government, the police, magistrates and others.

So, in many ways the youth justice system is a success story and there is much that the adult system could learn from us, but not everything is going in the right direction. Too many young people go on to reoffend upon release from custody and knife and offensive weapon offences resulting in a caution or conviction have been consistently rising since 2014. Two years on from the Lammy review, disproportionality continues to be a concern as does the number of care experienced children and young people in contact with the system.

In my conference speech I reiterated the Association’s belief that children and young people who are in conflict with the law should be treated as children first and foremost and that the youth justice system should be more closely aligned to existing infrastructure and accepted practices in children’s services. I feel assured that this is the direction of travel with the national reforms, but the pace of change is concerning. It’s now three years since the Taylor Review came out and I’m not sure we can confidently say that the lived experiences of children and young people in custody have been significantly transformed; assaults, levels of self-harm and use of restraint continue to rise. Indeed, I was shocked to read in HMCI Prison’s most recent annual report that the levels of violence in STCs remains the highest per head of all types of establishment the regulator oversees.

This week I also chaired a stakeholder meeting in London, which brought together ADCS representatives with others from youth work, youth offending teams, adult social care and children’s charities (amongst others), to consider our current and future responses to serious youth violence and knife crime. Whilst we all recognised the pressure ministers, and the police, are under to act, we were clear that tougher laws and longer sentences cannot address the reasons why individuals and indeed whole communities are more vulnerable to risk and harm.

We’ve come so far in our understanding of the role of abuse, exploitation and coercion but I don’t believe we’ve collectively got the right responses to criminal exploitation and county lines activities in place yet. Youth offending teams work with young people as ‘offenders’ yet an unknown number are also victims of criminal exploitation, which requires a different approach if they are to be effectively safeguarded. The absence of a holistic, cross-departmental strategy to address these issues, one which articulates shared aims and objectives, is keenly felt as is the lack of an equitable and sustainable funding settlement.

We need to work intensively with children and young people already affected by serious violence, often linked to wider, organised criminality, as well seeking to persuade others not to tread this path at all. We also need to tackle the root causes of harm as well as the societal conditions that allow abuse and exploitation to flourish.

I will certainly be raising these issues in my discussions with the fresh crop of ministers appointed after next week’s general election. Children’s lives depend on us working together and getting this right.



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