The extent to which the needs of young people are being met in the youth justice system of England and Wales is a widely discussed and volatile subject. Meeting the needs of young people depends entirely on the approach the youth justice system takes. Historically the English system (which still has jurisdiction over Wales) has been a complex blend of justice with, at times, huge shifts in the balance between them. The justice approach has always depended heavily on the present government, public opinion and the type of offence. We are reminded by Martin Stephenson that welfare follows the concept that a child should be treated differently to an adult with an emphasis upon the needs of the meeting. However, media, public outcry and government vying for votes and support help a justice approach stay strong.
Within England and Wales, perceived protection of the public outweighs the needs of the child.
The relatively recent age of risk assessment has had many effects on young people especially on young offenders such as the number of interventions and how interventions are conducted. These have not always been beneficial for young offenders as they have regularly dehumanised young offenders into nothing more than ‘risks’ on a document.
It is not only risk factors; the media and public outcry have a huge influence on the interventions of youth offenders. Unlike Scandinavian countries, young offenders in the UK are mostly viewed in a negative light with words like ‘Chavs’, ‘Delinquents’ and ‘Neds’ regularly thrown about. It can safely be said that the public support for young offenders’ needs is not as high as required. Following ‘riots’ in certain estates in the UK in 1991 and 2011 these young individuals who were in the past regarded as needing protection from crime, were suddenly considered its worst perpetrators. This is a prime example of social division and the problem with social division is that it is a circular issue. Social divisions cause inequalities of material and cultural resource, which in turn cause social divisions. This helps to explain the reoffending rates in England and Wales remain high compared to other European nations. As well as the fact that approximately 4–5% of the youth population is responsible for over half of all youth crime. This shows that a lot of young offenders’ needs are not being met as they are resorting back to crime. This is also heavily supported by the fact that according to the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee from 2000 until 2015 the rate of re-offending for those released from custody remained fairly similar, around 33 to 36 per cent. The fact that reoffending rates did and have not improved is an indication that the youth justice system is still not working for a large populous of youth offenders.
Re-offending rates are not to be taken as face values either as according to the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee a re-offence is defined as “any offence committed in a one year follow-up period that leads to a court conviction, caution, reprimand or warning in the one-year follow-up”.
This means that if a young person is convicted of a crime two or three years after the first offence it is not documented as a re-offence hence the rate of reoffending is most likely higher. Interestingly enough during the same period, re-offending rates for offenders on “community penalty” or “other” sentences were between 56.7 per cent and 59.2 per cent, higher than the re-offending rate of those released from custody. Which can lead to the assumption that custodial sentences seem to have a better provision of services for young people’s needs. This was supported by findings in the youth justice board report ‘Mental Health Needs and Effectiveness of Provision for Young Offenders in Custody and the Community’. Where they stated:
“The importance of re-engaging young people in education was a recurring theme, with many viewing custody as an opportunity to achieve this”
It is well known that a lot of young offenders are vulnerable young people from underprivileged and uncertain backgrounds. A lot of these young people have problems dealing with such uncertainty and as such resort to criminal cultures and actions. Today’s young people live in an unsettled social and economic environment, where things like lifelong careers and traditional family structures are becoming unusual, it is now extremely important to be able to cope with uncertainty. Young offenders generally have particularly challenging upbringings which lead them into uncertain times and unpredictable reactions.
Childhood and adolescence have become significantly more challenging. young people in England and Wales are more likely to engage in risky behaviours that lead to situations like early pregnancy, drug and alcohol misuse, educational failure, and incarceration. Many of these issues are associated with youth crime, drug abuse has been particularly attributed to offending behaviour. It has become quite clear that criminal behaviour will be most likely to occur as a result of young people attempting to fund an addiction. Other factors that present a risk of offending are hyperactivity such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Val Harpin and Susan Young cited that “research suggests that ADHD youths are vulnerable to committing crimes and that there is a disproportionately high proportion of individuals with ADHD involved with the criminal justice system”. However, some believe that ADHD may be being used as a reason for youth crime all too quickly without including other factors. Others disorders similar to ADHD are also attributed to youth offending as numerous studies show links between high impulsiveness and criminal behaviour.
It is clear that the needs of young people in the youth justice system are great and requires specific interventions, however, What also seems to be clear is that there systemic issues in providing timely as well appropriate services for these young people exist. Numerous people suggest that a large number of vulnerable young people become trapped in a “revolving door”, with many young people being put in a position in danger from themselves or others. The worry is that a lot of young people’s needs are overlooked purposely due to lack of resources and understanding. It is a very unfortunate truth that many young people with learning or mental difficulties are commonly seen as “too difficult” to help. The issue is not only highlighted by a handful of reporters and professionals but also in the already mentioned report, Mental Health Needs and Effectiveness of Provision for Young Offenders in Custody and the Community. The report states that “young people at the boundary between the Criminal Justice System and mental health services are a particularly vulnerable group that face not only the risk of social exclusion but also stigmatisation”. As such this suggests that the needs of young people in the youth justice system are continually overlooked with resources and funding diverted to other areas of the service. In general for the entirety of its existence, research in the youth justice board has concentrated on the cost of dealing with and processing crime carried out by youths, rather than the cost of support, care and education for the youth themselves.
The report highlighted several ways to improve the service, looking at both the then weaknesses as well as the strengths. However, more than a decade on years many issues have not improved, and some got worse. In 2013 it was noted that there had been a 21% increase in self-harming and ‘incidents of physical restraint had risen by 17% each year. This raises numerous questions about why and how this happened, what was going wrong within the system for this to continue and has it improved by 2020? Unfortunately, the answer to the last question is no.
John Carvel once noted that analysis of the case notes of a cross-section of young people in custody found a third were sentenced without medical information being supplied to the court. So seemingly judgements were being made without a clear picture of the young person’s situation. It has also brought to attention by numerous people there is either a greater understanding of certain needs of young people or the system was just more willing to address them. As an inspectorate report once noted that appropriate healthcare was provided to 36% of young people on community orders with physical health needs, 37% of those with emotional and mental health needs and 58% of substance abusers. This shows that the interventions in place for helping substance abusers are far better than those for physical and mental health. Another worry is of course that substance abusers can of course also have physical and mental health problems and therefore only one need is being addressed.
Another worrying item for concern is how well the police are affiliated with youth issues such as mental health problems. Being the first line of action in most cases of youth offending one would hope they have the appropriate ability to work with such issues. Unlike previous incidents where an autistic girl spent ten hours in a cell because police wrongly thought she was drunk or other cases where 17-year-olds who, despite mental health or developmental problems, were denied access to an appropriate adult.
One common theme within the youth justice system is healthcare provision and whether this is addressed through a welfare approach or a justice approach. Back in 2011, writing for the Guardian, Carlene Firmin argued that the youth justice system could further meet the health needs of young people by adopting a more health centred approach.
In one terrible incident she recalled:
“I once met a girl, aged 14, who had already had an abortion, numerous sexually transmitted infections and was experiencing trauma, all as a result of sexual violence and exploitation. She was in custody for breaching the conditions of a community sentence she had received as a result of attacking a professional who had been working with her. Her vulnerability was stark, and anyone who met her would know that only health professionals and the health system could begin to redress that.” — Carlene Firmin
Since 2006 youth offending institutions (YOIs) have had their health services commissioned by the NHS and in secure children’s homes since 2011. Discipline staff within YOIs have continuously had numerous concerned about identifying mental health problems. They express that they are unsure about whether there are any appropriate services available and their accessibility if so. This may have some explanation to why tensions have existed in YOIs between those who work in the discipline section and those who work in therapy as a lack of understanding may lead to low working cohesion. Such tensions can be detrimental to supporting and addressing the needs of the young people within the youth justice system.
As negative as some of the reports are about addressing the needs of young people within the youth justice system it would have to be remembered that there are also positives. This is a system for two countries within the United Kingdom, a democracy with good human rights and somewhat of a welfare state in play. One positive that is helping address young people’s needs within the system is multi-agency work and strategic planning by Youth Offending Teams (YOTs). YOTs are set up in such a manner that they do have a sense of care for the young people’s needs and want to establish good working inter-agency relationships. This shows that the youth justice system has attempted to cater to young offenders needs with some success.
However, as positive as the want for multi-agency work is, it is taking a while to establish and have had many problems achieving effective communication. There are still major barriers to achieving this related to a lack of understanding about roles and responsibilities. There have also been tensions regarding different statutory requirements and interfaces based solely on written communication.
In 2014 the then justice secretary Chris Grayling planned to build the first “secure college” for young criminals in England and Wales, however, he failed to get approval. When his conservative party became a majority in 2015 an attempt to make twelve billion pounds worth of cuts was made and almost everything was then overshadowed by the mess that is and was Brexit. The party has continually expressed more of an ethos of punishment rather than welfare. So far, the youth justice system has not improved, and its future is relatively uncertain. However, it seems unlikely that meeting the needs of the young people in it will improve on its current level.
In conclusion, young people in the youth justice system have specific needs based on many factors such as race, religion, education, family, economic background, and substance abuse, physical and mental health. It seems quite sure that the extent that these needs are met is not great. Consider the murder Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offenders followed by the rising self-harm rates and the unchanged re-offending rates for over a decade. More of a welfare approach is required to tackle these issues and needs otherwise the circle of social division and inequality will continue. However, before this approach can be implemented it will need public support if the UK can move away from degrading youth offenders as ‘Chavs’, ‘Scroungers’ and ‘Scum’ maybe it can move forward to a more beneficial (for all) system. As Kurt Kylloinen once said about Finland; “We do not think the proper way to take care of a child is by punishing the child”
Mark Easton, writing for the BBC once told us:
“Over 60% of children locked up by the state in the UK are known to have mental health problems. In Finland, such youngsters are more likely to be patients in well-funded psychiatric units” — Mark Easton
In Finland, you will not see the culprits described as “thugs” or “yobs”. At the end of the day the youth justice system is funded by the public and therefore to meet the needs of the young people in it, it must have support from the public to meet those needs. To change the system in England and Wales, the public attitude must first change. Such an attitude required is summed up by a conversation a BBC reporter once had with a local Finnish school psychologist:
“When I explained that in England and Wales children as young as 10 are dealt with under the penal code — and in Scotland as young as eight — the reform school’s psychologist Merja Ikalainen looked aghast”
Merja: I do not have words for that. It sounds so horrible.
Reporter: You think it is immoral?
Merja: It is.
Reporter: Why? If a young person knowingly commits a crime?
Merja: That’s not a young person. That is a child. They need care.
Reporter: But shouldn’t a child have to suffer the consequences of their actions?
Merja: Suffer! You use words that sound really horrible. A child should not be suffering. The word suffer sounds really sad.’
However, looking at the current head of the UK, the situations at hand within the country, we are more likely to get a yacht for the Queen than reform for those young people we continue to let down.