The Justice Committee report makes recommendations including a review of the age of criminal responsibility, data collection on out of court disposals and research in respect of racial disproportionality in the youth justice system.
The report is published as part of the inquiry launched by the Justice Committee in July 2019 into children and young people in the youth justice system. The report identifies that the number of children entering the youth justice system has decreased by 85% since March 2009, but those entering the system are some of the most vulnerable children in society, with many having mental health issues, learning disabilities, and experience of care.
The key recommendations made by the Justice Committee in the report are summarised below:
- Youth Justice Population: The report recognises that the complexity of the issues facing children that enter the youth justice system requires a whole-system approach involving public agencies beyond those of the criminal justice system (such as educational, psychological and social services). The Justice Committee recommends that much greater priority be given to this in the development of future policy and practice.
- Diversion from Formal Criminal Processing: The Justice Committee recommends that the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board work together to start collecting more and better data on the use, impact and outcomes of out of court disposals (including how many children benefit from such disposals, the impact on reoffending and health and education outcomes). It recommends that national guidance on out of court disposals be provided and that such disposals be adequately funded. The Justice Committee also recommends that the Ministry of Justice increase access to mental health support for all children and young people that need it.
- Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility: The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. The Justice Committee recommends that the Ministry of Justice review the age of criminal responsibility and report on the implications of raising the age in England and Wales to 12 or 14 (including the likely effect on reducing the number of children in custody and alternative methods of addressing serious offences committed by children below that age). This is based on evidence the Committee heard from scientists and specialist child and adolescent psychiatrists regarding the fact that critical brain development does not occur until later in adolescence. The Ministry of Justice should provide evidence and reasoning to justify the approach if it concludes that 10 should remain the age of criminal responsibility.
- Racial Disproportionality: The report identifies that a disproportionate number of children entering the youth justice system were from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. The Justice Committee recommends that the Ministry of Justice (i) set out the resources allocated to addressing disproportionality, (ii) provide research setting out the reasons for such disproportionality and the action being taken and (iii) explain the high levels of BAME children being remanded to custody.
- Youth Courts and Sentencing: The Justice Committee recommends that those who turn 18 while waiting for proceedings against them to begin should be automatically dealt with in the youth justice system and sentenced as children. It also recommends that the Ministry of Justice review current sentencing options for children with a view to introducing a youth rehabilitation order as a sentencing option for first-time offenders pleading guilty. The Justice Committee recommends that direct recruitment to the youth magistracy be introduced to allow magistrates to specialise in the youth justice system from the outset.
The report identifies a number of positive developments in the youth justice system but it also identifies a number of problems that continue to exist including some relevant to wider social issues.
These recommendations are welcome and important and the objectives are encouraging. Through these recommendations the Justice Committee clearly seeks to address important issues in the youth justice system relating to criminal responsibility, racial disproportionality, sentencing and treatments available to children entering the youth justice system.
Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Committee, stressed that the best way to address these objectives would be to adopt a better “whole system approach” involving social, health and psychological services. He reminded the government that it pays to address the complex needs of the vulnerable children entering the criminal justice system because “better outcomes for these children… means lower re-offending rates, which is better for society.”
However, concerns remain as to whether the Ministry of Justice will make sufficiently bold changes in response to the report. An MOJ spokesperson told The Guardian: ““The Committee said it is not convinced there is a reason to change the age of criminal responsibility – and we have no plans to do so.” This does not tally with the Committee’s demand that the MOJ provide specific evidence and reasoning if they conclude that 10 should remain the age of criminal responsibility.
Written by Victoria Morton, Associate, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP