Alliance for Youth Justice policy briefing on the prevention of a post-pandemic surge in the criminalisation of children

A perfect storm for children at risk? Preventing a post-pandemic surge in criminalisation of children

This policy briefing prepared by the Alliance for Youth Justice is the first paper in a series of three aimed at understanding the challenges and opportunities created by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and the youth justice system.


The paper explores how issues relating to children have been exacerbated by the pandemic and, in many cases, show little signs of improvement and highlights the following concerns:

  • The pandemic has had a particular impact on children with mental health and wellbeing issues.

  • Many children, especially those from deprived communities, have not had adequate access to education or children’s support services.
  • Restrictions on interaction by professional child support networks during the pandemic have led to increased risk of children being exposed to abuse, exploitation and violence.
  • Many felt that Covid-19 regulations were an excuse to increase harassment, enforcement and stop and search, which further eroded confidence in the police.

The paper also found that children’s support systems, which were already under huge strain prior to the pandemic, were placed under further pressure by the pandemic and noted the following specific issues:

  • Under the constraint of government restrictions, services have not been able to fully and properly address the needs of children.
  • The pandemic exacerbated the pre-existing strain on children’s social care systems, which are struggling to cope with the increased demand for safeguarding and social care for children.
  • Many youth services were required to reduce provision, make redundancies and even permanently close.
  • The pandemic has further complicated the needs of vulnerable children, and service and support providers are often not tailored for the specific populations that require them.

Lastly, the paper analyses the current policy landscape in this area, and makes recommendations for improvements:

  • There continues to be a lack of priority in government given to supporting children. To make matters worse, policy has seen a shift towards increasingly punitive measures, which further risks entangling children with the formal youth justice system.
  • However, this post-pandemic moment presents a unique opportunity to re-evaluate children’s services and to develop a nationally coordinated strategy. Promising new government initiatives for children have been announced recently, but there is still a lack of consistency and co-operation across the governmental functions, which creates a risk that children will ‘fall through the gaps’.
  • The paper recommends:
    • The development of a unified cross-government strategy for children, led by a Cabinet-level Minister for Children and with a particular focus on children at risk and maximum diversion of children away from the formal youth justice system.
    • Re-evaluation of children’s support services, including assessment of how such systems operate under pressure from logistical challenges posed by macroeconomic events such as the pandemic.
    • Utilising online opportunities alongside continued face to face engagement with children.
    • Policies and training to rebuild relationships between the police and children and to ensure the police prioritise the safeguarding and supporting of children.


The evidence reviewed by the paper reiterates the unprecedented and devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children. The policy briefing highlights the need to prioritise diverting children away from the criminal justice system and recommends measures to achieve this given that evidence shows that diversion is more effective at reducing offending than escalation through the formal youth justice process. The pandemic has aggravated certain issues in the youth justice system and coordinated action, including the need to increase support for children from services outside of the criminal justice system, will be required to properly address these issues.


Written by Bernard Lung, Associate, Paul Hastings Europe LLP