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The risk of assessing risk

Penelope Gibbs
10 Dec 2019

Do you see children through the lens of risk, need or potential? Maybe all three?  But are there dangers in looking at under 18 year olds who have committed minor crime as potential repeat offenders or potential welfare recipients?

seminal study by University of Edinburgh academics has followed thousands of children through their childhood and young adulthood. This study has found that those children who were criminalised as children were more likely than their peers to commit more crime. Being involved with the care system also had a negative impact on offending.

The Campbell Collaborative has gathered together all the best studies on children who offend and concludes that “juvenile system processing [criminalising children] appears to not have a crime control effect, and across all measures appears to increase delinquency. This was true across measures of prevalence, incidence, severity, and self-report. Given the additional financial costs associated with system processing (especially when compared to doing nothing) and the lack of evidence for any public safety benefit, jurisdictions should review their policies regarding the handling of juveniles”.

The implications of this are strong – that we should try as hard as possible not to prosecute or give criminal justice sanctions to children, since doing so increases offending. The reasons why “system processing” backfires are not clear, but experts think it’s because criminal sanctions give a teenager an identity as an offender, an identity they then live up to.

This fits with an idea long held by youth justice practitioners that less is more – that a speedy light touch criminal justice intervention can be more effective than one with lots of complicated conditions.

Out of court disposals like cautions are supposed to be used for those who commit minor offences, particular those offending for the first time. In the case of children it is ideal (if possible) to divert them from the criminal justice system altogether, since any contact is negative and liable to exacerbate offending. But if any formal action is going to be taken by the police, an out of court disposal or community resolution should be used (unless prosecution is absolutely necessary).

We have made huge progress in diverting children from the formal criminal justice system and from court. But I fear the new inspection regime from HMI Probation is treating out of court disposals for children like court sentences and thus threatening any possibility of them being light touch.

HMI probation guidance implies that every child subject to an out of court disposal should have a full assessment – they don’t mandate the use of “asset plus” but imply that it is the gold standard. The Asset Plus assessment was designed for children subject to court sanctions. It is a long form which takes a very long time to complete.

The inspectorate implies that every out of court disposal, including community resolutions, needs to include an “intervention”. The implication is that every crime is the result of errant behaviour, which needs to be changed. But lots of childhood crime is the result of boredom (criminal damage), fear (knife possession) or transitory anger. There may be no entrenched behaviour to change. And if we try to imply that every child who commits a crime needs to fundamentally change, we may be embedding the label of “criminal”. Just William committed many crimes. He needed to apologise to his victims, but he was a normal, if occasionally very annoying, boy.

Many children who commit crime are unlikely to do it again. So a full scale intervention may be overkill. The guidance on community resolutions says they can be dealt with by a police officer on the street. But this would not satisfy HMI Probation. They suggest that any approach which does not involve a full assessment and an intervention will neither be effective nor mitigate the risks involved.

It is when it comes to assessing risk in relation to children that I worry most about the inspection framework. The idea that we can assess the risk of re-offending comes from the adult world and, even there, has a shaky evidence base. But when it comes to children there is no evidence whatsoever that we can reliably predict their risk of harming other people in the future. Children are young and ever changing. The context of their life can change within hours. Raging hormones make all teenagers unpredictable. Children who are offending for the first time and/or committing minor offences like shop-lifting, are particularly difficult to predict. HMI Probation encourages all YOTs to “consider who is at risk from the child/young person; the nature of that risk; and the impact on imminent of the risk. We expect an assessment of the risk of any/all harm, not just serious harm. If there is an identified person at risk (parent, sibling, peer, partner or ex-partner) this should be clearly identified, and the nature of that risk specified. Use of specialised risk assessment tools should be referenced, such as AIM”. So a fourteen year old who has been picked up by police for possession of cannabis, or for breaking a window in their children’s home, is to be judged as a potential perpetrator of violence?

I fear the inspection tail may be wagging the practice dog. YOTs have been heavily criticised for paying insufficient attention to public protection in relation to out of court disposals. A recent report on a YOT said “assessments to manage the risk of harm to others were done well enough in just under one-third of cases”.

I absolutely agree that children can create harm to others and that we should do all we can to prevent that. But there is no academic evidence to suggest we can measure the risk of re-offending, particularly in the case of children accused of minor offending. So should YOTs be put under pressure to approach out of court disposals as if they were court sentences? And in making out of court disposals more bureaucratic and onerous, we may lose sight of what they can offer – a speedy, light touch sanction for children who have transgressed.

PS This blog was inspired by a session at the YJB Convention where the inspectorate and two excellent youth offending services – Gloucestershire and East Riding – talked about their approach to out of court disposals.