The Government response recognises that ensuring the best outcomes for children in the youth justice system relies on a wide range of partners and public agencies working effectively together and further strengthening this collaboration is a major priority. The Government has allocated additional funds in response to the Justice Committee report and will use further research to help better understand out-of-court disposals and disproportionality within the youth justice system.
The Government response addresses recommendations made by the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board by the Justice Committee’s report on Children and Young People in Custody (Part 1). The Government states that the focus of the youth justice system on the statutory aim of preventing offending by children and the welfare of the child is correctly distinctive from that of adults. The Government wants a youth justice system that recognises the unique needs of children, addresses underlying reasons for child offending and intervenes early to provide support and diverting children away from the system where possible.
The key responses given by the Government to the Justice Committee recommendations are summarised below:
- Youth Justice Population: The Government recognises that children who offend are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Whilst the Government states that much of the holistic approach is embedded in the operation of the youth justice system and the multi-agency working is enshrined in law, it also agrees with the Justice Committee that there is more to be done to ensure that children at risk of entering the justice system, and those in contact with it, receive the holistic support that they need.
- Diversion from Formal Criminal Processing: The response acknowledges that out-of-court disposals and diversion from formal criminal justice processing is a vital part of the wider youth justice system. The Government agrees that more can be done to collect data on diversion schedules and since April 2020, the Youth Justice Board has been collecting data which it will explore publishing once it has collected a full year of sufficient quality data. The Government states that such data collection work will improve understanding on the impact and effectiveness of out-of-court disposals.
- Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility: The Justice Committee recommended that the age of criminal responsibility be reviewed and the implications of raising the age in England and Wales from 10 be reported. The Government does not have any current plans to either review or change the age of criminal responsibility.
- Racial Disproportionality: The response recognises the absolute need for systemic change and the need to prioritise the understanding and tackling of disproportionality of children from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background within the youth justice system. The Government (i) secured funding to use physical activity and trauma-informed practice to improve outcomes for 11,000 BAME children at risk of entering the criminal justice system, (ii) allocated payments for a pathfinder concept in areas such as Newham and Brent to support BAME children and families and (iii) is going to fund Black and Asian specialist voluntary sector organisations. A review is being undertaken on the use of remand for children, with particular attention to the disproportionate representation of BAME children. An independent peer review by external academics is also in preparation for publication which the Government aims to use to better understand why ethnic disproportionality occurs at the time children are remanded or sentenced.
- Youth Courts and Sentencing: The Justice Committee recommended 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. The response states that youth and maturity inform sentencing decisions as a mitigating factor even after the offender turns 18. The Government response included that direct recruitment to the youth magistracy to allow magistrates to specialise in the youth justice system from the outset has been previously considered but the initiative has not been pursued, as there is an insufficient caseload in the youth courts for this to be proportionate.
The Government response is generally encouraging. It shows that the primary objectives of the Justice Committee recommendations and the Government’s plans are broadly aligned and seek to address important issues in the youth justice system relating to criminal responsibility, racial disproportionality, sentencing and disposals available to children entering the youth justice.
Whilst the Government rejected some of the Justice Committee’s recommendations including (i) the need to consider raising the age of criminal responsibility, (ii) the proposal for legislation to ensure those turning 18 while waiting for proceedings be dealt with in the youth justice system and (iii) the introduction of direct recruitment to youth magistracy, the responses and rationale provided by the Government for these decisions are helpful to understand the current approach. Nevertheless, these rejections demonstrate a clear reluctance to institute the radical systemic change required to address the serious issues identified by the Justice Committee.
Victoria Morton, Associate, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP