Charlie Taylor’s interim report of the youth justice review published earlier in the year indicates that reform will focus on the youth custodial estate, moving towards smaller units, closer to home, with a focus on education and a therapeutic approach. Better coordination across the system must also feature prominently if we are to tackle the rising needs of young people in the youth justice system.
As a result of recent reductions in the numbers of children entering custody, those who are in custody are more likely to display an entrenched pattern of offending behaviour, have committed more serious offences and have more serious problems. Reoffending rates after custody remain stubbornly high with many young people continuing in a destructive cycle of crime that they struggle to get out of.
Many of these young people have had chaotic lives, experienced trauma, abuse, bereavement, periods in the care system, school exclusion, drug or alcohol dependency and mental health problems. Often young people in custody are isolated from their families or carers when they need them the most. The closure of some institutions and restructuring of the secure estate more generally has meant that a large proportion of young people end up in custody a long way from home.
In responding to these challenges it is vital that agencies supporting young people in the system work effectively together. Interventions that address multiple and complex problems do not work in isolation. Yet young people tell us joined up working rarely happens in practice. All too often young people leaving custody experience a system that is disjointed and inconsistent; driven by competing priorities that results in the types of experiences such as clashing appointments or repeated questions that push young people further away from the vital support they need.
Youth justice professionals recognise this problem and work tirelessly to address it. Yet effective join up is too often dependent on personal commitment rather than system change. So, as we await government reform, how can we redress this problem, to work across boundaries, challenge competing priorities and provide the personalised care that is needed to reverse the current trends of high reoffending rates of young people leaving custody? Here are two key ways to do this that have been drawn from Beyond Youth Custody’s research into what works in tackling reoffending.
The input of a wide range of agencies in itself is not enough. There needs to be proper coordination between custodial facilities and the community – between the statutory, voluntary, community and business sectors. Changing the way a young person behaves and thinks about themselves is challenging. It is likely they will need substantial support in order to stimulate and reinforce change requiring consistency, resilience and drive, not only on the part of the young person, but from those working to support them. Where appropriate support is available and agencies work together, custody, and what comes after, can provide young people with the interventions they need to overcome their problems and start the process of building a better life. Central to this is making sure resettlement is the driving force of sentence planning from the earliest opportunity – when it is likely to be most effective.
The role of families
Where appropriate, family involvement can be an important resource which can continue long after the resettlement agencies have withdrawn. Crucially, the family can offer a sense of connectedness with both the community and the world beyond it. This can promote stability and counteract the vulnerabilities that are often a consequence of incarceration. The young person’s familial role and relationships can also be important aspects of their personal identity. The family can also identify and underline strengths and goals that will support the young person’s personal development. Families can also offer important practical support to enable young people to achieve their aims. Families can therefore be seen to be central to resettlement work, and it is crucial that they feel part of the process rather than being alienated by it. Where possible they should be integral to resettlement planning – attending sentence planning meetings so that they are involved in preparations for release. A disproportionately high number of young people in custody have spent time in local authority care, many being moved through several placements. For these children, it is important that social workers are actively involved in working with other agencies and families throughout the sentence and beyond. We must find a way to overcome the challenge of social workers having to travel long distances to custodial establishments to ensure that young people are supported in a consistent way.
Changing a young person’s path can be hard. But it can be done. By putting resettlement at the heart of a custodial sentence, young people can take the important steps needed to change their path and build constructive links with their community.
For more information about the Beyond Youth Custody programme and upcoming research into collaboration and the role of families in resettlement, please visit: www.beyondyouthcustody.net