This policy briefing prepared by Alliance for Youth Justice is the second in a series of three policy briefings exploring the challenges and opportunities created by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and the youth justice system.
The briefing considers key challenges for the youth justice system brought about or exacerbated by the pandemic, emphasising lessons to be learned as well as considering future directions for youth justice.
The challenges highlighted include:
- Delays in police processing and charging as well as delays to courts progressing children’s cases are disruptive to children and can cause harm to children’s wellbeing.
- Children turning 18 before their case comes to court lose out on the protections and support afforded to children as they are then dealt with as an adult in the adult court system.
- There are concerns about the impact on the mental health of children remanded to custody during the pandemic, since repeated delays to their court dates have meant they spend longer on remand, away from their support networks.
- Children’s ability to effectively participate in their court proceedings has been considered at risk when using video and audio links (rather than appearing in court in person), with the court system failing to adequately accommodate for children’s young age, developmental immaturity and the issues impacting neuro-development and communication.
- Reductions in in-person contact between children and their lawyers may have a disproportionate impact on the ability of lawyers to build relationships with racially minoritised children and therefore further exacerbate existing racial disparities for the treatment and outcomes of racially minoritised people in the criminal justice system.
- Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) have developed new ways of delivering services and engaging with children during the pandemic, however there is a need to properly evaluate these ways of working to ensure models of service delivery are of a high standard and are in the child’s best interest before they become embedded.
The briefing makes the following recommendations on how to tackle some of the key issues brought into focus by the pandemic:
- Analysis should be undertaken to understand what the root causes of delays to investigations are and how to reduce them.
- Measures adopted during the pandemic for flagging and prioritising cases where a child is approaching 18 should be evaluated and continued. More broadly the briefing recommends the reform of the system to deal with children according to the date of their alleged offence instead of the date at which they appear in court.
- Efforts should be made to reduce delays to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to ensure children don’t go through the court process without recognition of victimisation in cases of child criminal exploitation (CCE). The briefing also recommends that a statutory definition of CCE be introduced to help improve early identification of exploitation by the relevant authorities and improve safeguarding responses.
- YOTs should make serious efforts to address the findings of the thematic inspection into the experiences of Black and mixed heritage boys, to ensure that interventions are tailored to the individual and to address the discrimination and profiling experienced by racially minoritised children throughout the justice system.
The pandemic and the circumstances of lockdowns have required changes to the established ways of working with children in the system which has resulted in some of the most significant changes in practice since the youth justice system was created in 1998. The government and the YJB must take this opportunity to prioritise reform post-pandemic and think more radically about what youth justice should look like in the current climate. The briefing also emphasises that such reforms should be made to fulfil the overarching aims of the Child First approach adopted by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) in 2019, which include prioritising children’s particular needs, encouraging children’s active participation, and minimising their contact with the justice system.
Written by Louise Ferdjani, Associate, Paul Hastings Europe LLP