The latest youth justice trends

Work with Offenders looks at the detail of the YJB’s annual report.

Last week the Youth Justice Board published its annual report and accounts for the financial year 2019/20. For readers who don’t know the YJB is the “independent non-departmental public body” responsible for overseeing the operation of the youth justice system and the provision of youth justice services. Its budget for the year in question was £84.4 million, the vast majority of which (£80.2m) is spent on programmes with £72m going directly to local authorities to deliver youth justice services.

In the year covered by this annual report, the Board published a revised vision of the youth justice system that it wishes to see:

“A youth justice system that sees children as children, treats them fairly and helps them to build on their strengths so they can make a constructive contribution to society. This will prevent offending and create safer communities with fewer victims.”

The YJB espouses a child first approach which sees those in the system as children (as opposed to offenders) first. The consequences of this approach is that all youth justice services are expected to:

  • Prioritise the best interests of children, recognising their particular needs, capacities, rights and potential. All work is child-focused and developmentally informed.
  • Promote children’s individual strengths and capacities as a means of developing their pro-social identity for sustainable desistance, leading to safer communities and fewer victims. All work is constructive and future-focused, built on supportive relationships that empower children to fulfil their potential and make positive contributions to society.
  • Encourage children’s active participation, engagement and wider social inclusion. All work is a meaningful collaboration with children and their supporters.
  • Promote a childhood removed from the justice system, using pre-emptive prevention, diversion and minimal intervention. All work minimises criminogenic stigma from contact with the system.

Trends

Somewhat disappointingly, the statistics presented in the annual report actually refer to the previous financial year (2018/19) with the data for 2019/20 apparently not available until January 2021. Nevertheless, the main trends make for interesting reading.

  • Overall, the number of children cautioned or sentenced has continued to fall. This reflects, in part, efforts across a range of agencies to divert children from entering or staying in the criminal justice system. Despite a long term downward trend, the drop in the number of children given a caution or a sentence is still pretty staggering – down 19% on the previous year.
  • The number of knife and offensive weapon offences committed by children decreased by 1% in the year ending March 2019. Whilst this was the first decrease seen since the year ending March 2015, the YJB remains still sees it as a high priority to try to reduce the number of children carrying and using knives.
  • Although the number of children committing crimes continues to fall, the proportion of children cautioned or sentenced for violent offences increased by 1.1 percentage points in the year ending March 2019.
  • Depressingly, the proportion of children from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background continued to increase, by 0.5 percentage points for all children in the youth justice system (to 27%) and 3.5 percentage points for those in custody (to 49%). In addition, black children were still over four times more likely to be arrested and over three times more likely to receive a caution or sentence than white children.
  • Interestingly, the proportion of girls in the youth justice system continues to fall; with a further reduction of 0.6% last year down to just 15% of the total number of children who get into trouble with the law.
  • The number of children detained in custody also continues to fall. In the year ending March 2019, there was an average of just under 860 children in custody at any one time. This is a decrease of 4% in the custody population when compared with the previous year (year ending March 2018). However, the average number of children held on remand has increased by 12% during 2018/19, so that children on remand made up 28% of all children in custody. This is a worrying development, which may well be exacerbated in the current year because of the pressures on our justice system caused by coronavirus. The YJB offers no explanation for this substantial rise.

Perhaps the main point of interest for youth justice practitioners lie in the details of innovative practice (which the YJB calls pathfinders). There are five current pathfinder projects designed to:

  1. Improve resettlement work
  2. Reduce serious youth violence
  3. Reduce the number of children exploited through “county lines” drug dealing operations
  4. Tackle the disproportionate number of children from BAME backgrounds in the youth justice system
  5. Out of court disposals leading to more children diverted from the criminal justice system.

It will be interesting to see in next year’s report whether the YJB has been able to progress these projects or whether the impact of coronavirus and the fallback to a mainly remote operating model has effectively sabotaged them.