This report seeks to offer a contextual analysis of trends suggested by the latest available data on youth crime. By doing this, it facilitates an assessment of the treatment of children within the youth justice system and the extent to which the system takes adequate account of children’s rights, best interest and longer-term wellbeing. The report strongly advocates the adoption of a child first philosophy.
The report identifies trends mostly from 1992 to 2018 (limited by the paused access to the Police National Computer). It was written in the context of concerns raised by the National Association for Youth Justice following the government’s unsatisfactory response to recommendations made by the 2016 Taylor review. While there have been developments in the youth justice system reflecting a shift away from the philosophical underpinnings of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the report argues that a child first approach needs to be explicitly adopted to influence practice.
Below are some of the key trends Bateman identified:
- The Extent of Youth Crime: By analysing the data available by the Crime Survey of England and Wale, Police records, public perceptions, and the more muted self-reported offending data, detected youth crime has fallen significantly over time.
- Nature of Lawbreaking: Offending is prevalent during the adolescent years, diminishing upon the transition into adulthood, and these crimes are relatively minor and in decline. However, “desistance” from crime upon reaching adulthood can be negated by contact with the youth justice system.
- Characteristics of children: Children who come into contact with the Youth Justice system are disproportionately drawn from vulnerable working-class backgrounds, including children in care and children from BAME backgrounds.
- Alternatives to arrest and formal sanctions: The police have increasingly made use of community disposals to tackle low-level lawbreaking without the need for arrest or a criminal conviction. However, its use is not adequately monitored.
- Police Custody: With the fall in arrests, there are fewer children in custody. However, children who are arrested are not treated appropriately, with children spending considerable amounts of time without the presences of an independent adult and a failure to transfer children refused bail to local authority accommodation.
- Pre-court measures: While there are fewer first-time entrants in the system per year, they are now more likely to “skip” the caution stage and receive a conviction instead.
- “Minimum necessary intervention”: Evidence suggests youth court orders have increased in their intrusiveness and the principle of “minimum necessary intervention” is unfortunately not seen as a priority in the youth justice system.
- Custodial sentences: While there is the declined use of court disposals, custody is still not always used as a last resort. Secure estate is also reported to be unfit for purpose with increasing levels of violence and force used, basic necessities in short supply, and needs of the children overlooked.
- Influence of policy: The return to an approach of diversion, while decreasing the number of children in the youth justice system, has led to a financial reduction of youth justice resources.
While this report identifies many of the positive developments in the youth justice system over time, it also teases out the problems that still exist, primarily concerning the system’s lack of a strong enough focus on the long-term wellbeing of the children who come into contact with the system.
The report is extremely important and relevant to some of the wider social issues of importance this year. The Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have an impact on the youth justice system, perhaps similar to the 2008 financial crisis. The analysis of pre-existing data and their context might inform responses to the issues arising from the pandemic. For example, the report has already identified how social distancing measures in Youth Offender Institutions have isolated children in custody. Additionally, the pandemic is very likely to worsen the living conditions and wellbeing of children from the working class or in care, who are already predisposed to being in contact with the system. Potential solutions can be pondered upon with the report’s analysis in mind.
Additionally, following from the Lammy Review in 2017, this report has shown that BAME children are disproportionately disadvantaged at every step of the youth justice system. With the current political climate, the trends identified in this report will hopefully fuel efforts to adopt meaningful and proactive policies in the youth justice system and beyond.