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December 20, 2016

Reform of youth justice – a lost opportunity?

Occasionally there is a golden opportunity for radical change and it is seized. Unfortunately, the opportunity to change the youth justice system in England and Wales for the better may have been thrown away. Politics have got in the way, namely Brexit. When Michael Gove became Lord Chancellor, he decided early on to commission a series of reviews from independent people – David Lammy MP on BAME offenders, Dame Sally Coates on prison education and Charlie Taylor on youth justice. The Coates’ review was published before the referendum, Lammy is still developing his thinking and the Taylor review has just been published six months late.

I think advocates like myself were slightly suspicious of Charlie Taylor when he started work, given he had no expertise in youth justice. And suspicious of Gove’s motivation in commissioning the review. There was much to improve in the youth justice system, but it was going in the right direction – the number of children imprisoned and the number prosecuted in court had plummeted, and youth crime was down.

Our suspicions about the review proved to be wrong. Charlie quickly understood the dynamics of the system, and was allowed by Gove to think radically. Unfortunately, Gove’s demise led to the publication of the Taylor report being delayed (since the new ministers wanted to understand the context) and most of the radical ideas have been kicked into very long grass.

The only radical idea which definitely looks as if will happen is the piloting of secure schools – a new model of child custody to replace young offender institutions. But it is not clear that the secure schools which will eventually be launched, will be small enough and therapeutic enough to provide effective care and rehabilitation.

Charlie proposed many other changes to our broken system, in which children are criminalised too young and too harshly. He realised that any child prosecuted in court finds it hard to understand what is going on, and the sentence imposed is often only a punishment, rather than addressing the causes of the crime. So he proposed a radical way of diverting children from court along the lines of the Scottish children’s panel system where most children who offend are seen as having a welfare need, and not criminalised. Charlie suggested that all children who plead guilty to anything but the most serious offences should go in front of a volunteer led panel, rather than a court. In response the government said it would “make the court experience more appropriate for young offenders… by removing unnecessary appearances in court and holding first remand hearings in the youth court rather than adult magistrates’ courts”. This misses Charlie’s point – that the court experience is so inappropriate, we should use a different forum to address childhood offending.

Charlie also recognised that our criminal records put up a huge barrier, obstructing children and adults from moving on with their lives: “I believe that the criminal records system in England and Wales should be more sensitive to the transitory nature of much childhood offending, and to the limited future risk of offending that most crimes committed in childhood actually present”. On this the government said it would not consider policy change until some key court challenges were resolved. What the government didn’t say was that it has brought on one of these challenges – through appealing a judgement which went against the government. Accepting this judgment would have made the criminal records system less punitive to those who committed two childhood offences.

Why have the majority of the Taylor Review recommendations met with a fairly cold shoulder? Partly because this is a conservative administration in the sense of disliking radical change, partly because it is afraid of being accused of being soft on crime, and partly because Liz Truss is focused on crisis management in prisons and probation, not on improving a system which is not failing. It’s a real pity that the opportunity for real change seem to have been lost, but it’s one of the many bi-products of the Brexit vote.

NB This blog is written in my role as Director of Transform Justice. It is not the official view of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, of which I am Deputy Chair.