COVID has devastated the youth justice system

Work with offenders on a new report by the Alliance for Youth Justice

The exceptional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the youth justice system are documented in a new report published today. The report is actually a literature review which aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the existing policy, practice and research literature about the impacts of COVID-19 on the youth justice system. The review considers the impacts of the pandemic across each stage of the youth justice system, bringing together findings from community-based responses, the courts, and the secure estate.

The report was produced by the Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ), as part of a series of papers that will be published over the life of a new research project examining the Youth Justice System’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The research project is delivered in partnership with the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies (MCYS) at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and funded by UK Research and Innovation.

About the Alliance for Youth Justice

The Alliance for Youth Justice (until recently known as the Standing Committee for Youth Justice) has been in operation since the early 1990s. The AYJ is a coalition of over 70 organisations all committed to improving the youth justice system in England and Wales.

Key findings

The review looks at the impact of the pandemic in a number of different areas: on children in the community generally; their experiences of policing under lockdown; as well as the experiences of children supervised by the Youth Offending Service, those going through courts (including a focus on virtual justice) and those in custody.

The main conclusions of the review are that:

  • The pandemic had a devastating impact on children and families, and the heightened levels of safeguarding concerns, are major concerns for children involved with the youth justice system as well as those in the general population facing new and increased challenges.
  • The literature identifies a consistent theme about the lack of information, understanding and focus on children during the pandemic. The Government has often failed to distinguish between its approach to adults and children in their policy responses.
  • Throughout the various stages of the youth justice system, digital models of communication and service provision have been adapted. A clear ‘digital divide’ has emerged between those who have access to digital technologies and those who do not.
  • Across systems and services for children, including the youth justice system, there is a need for proper evaluation of the temporary measures implemented during COVID-19 before they become widespread and permanently embedded.
  • From decisions to arrest, divert or prosecute children in the community, to remand and sentencing, there was a clear need identified to work to reduce the number of children passing through a system that is struggling to cope.
  • The full impacts of delays on the courts and broader criminal justice system in the longer-term are yet to be fully understood but should be seen in the context of a system already under severe strain.
  • Custody numbers fell overall, but the proportion of children on remand has increased, and unambitious custody release schemes have been criticised for being completely ineffective.
  • The majority of children in penal establishments have been subjected to awful conditions for months on end, deprived of education, visits and contact, and amounting to solitary confinement.
  • The harms experienced by children in custody, and the impacts on their longer-term health and wellbeing must be fully assessed and supported effectively.

The AYJ promises that the next stages of the research project are focused on addressing these gaps in knowledge and informing future strategy, policy and practice, in the best interests of children.