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Thursday, 25 February 2010

Criminal Justice Alliance

It is not often than you see a good news story in the criminal justice arena, but against all expectations the tide does seem to be turning in youth justice. According to Government figures (http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/STR/d000895/index.shtml), the number of first time entrants into the youth justice system has fallen substantially, with 74,033 young people aged 10-17 receiving their first reprimand, warning or conviction in England in 2008-09, a decrease of a startling 21.6% from 94,481 young people in 2007-08 and down from a peak of 104,361 in 2006-07. Meanwhile the number of young people in custody has also fallen (http://www.cypnow.co.uk/bulletins/Youth-Justice/news/982724/?DCMP=EMC-YouthJustice), with 2,203 under-18s in custody in December 2009, down by nearly 1,000 from a peak of 3,175 in October 2002.

Clearly, too many young people still come into contact with the youth justice system, and nobody should be satisfied with what is still a high level of youth custody. But progress is, at last, being made. So what is causing this? Nobody seems to know for sure. The abandonment of the notorious ‘Offences Brought to Justice’ target has probably played a part in the reduction in the number of first time entrants into the youth justice system. This target had a disproportionate impact on under-18s, who were more likely to be targeted unnecessarily in the drive to meet it. Scrapping the target should have made it easier for the police to deal with minor offences informally.

Alongside this, a shaky political consensus appears to be emerging that too many young people are being criminalised, and that better ways can be found to address troublesome behaviour by children and young people. This is exemplified by the Government’s public statements in support of the falling number of first time entrants into the youth justice system, the Conservatives’ attempts, however clumsy, to find ways of addressing youth offending outside the formal youth justice system, and the Liberal Democrats’ criticism of the Government for their previous ‘unprecedented criminalisation of our children’. It is far from perfect, of course, and there are still far too many occasions when politicians from all parties use crime by young people as a way of scoring political points. But the atmosphere does seem to be less febrile than it was, particularly with regards to low-level offending, although whether this will survive a hotly-contested election campaign remains to be seen.

The falling number of first time entrants into the youth justice system will, in turn, have had a significant effect on the number of young people who, once caught up in the youth justice system, end up in custody. It is likely that other factors will also have had an impact. The use of custody may, for example, have been affected by the work of the Youth Justice Board to persuade courts and youth offending teams to have confidence in alternative options. However, why that would have been successful now, but not previously, is not clear. There is also a vibrant campaigning environment around the issue of youth justice, including, for example, the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble campaign (http://www.outoftrouble.org.uk/) and the work of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (http://www.scyj.org.uk/). By and large, this work has the support of children’s charities such as the Children’s Society and the NSPCC, which arguably command more public support than traditional penal reformers. This campaigning work may finally be having an impact.

Whatever the causes, the drop in the use of youth custody, in particular, is extremely welcome. Unfortunately, there has been no parallel reduction in the adult prison population, which continues to grow at an unsustainable rate. So alongside a clearer understanding of what caused the reduction in the use of custody for young people and how this can be sustained, what we also need to examine is how similar gains can be made in reducing the adult prison population and reversing the escalation in the use, and the reach, of the adult criminal justice system.

Jon Collins,
Campaign Director,
Criminal Justice Alliance (www.criminaljusticealliance.org)

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