Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 211 - 219)



  Q211  Chairman: Mike Thomas, from the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, Bob Reitemeier, from The Children's Society, and John Coughlan, Director of Children's Services in Hampshire formerly joint president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, we are very glad to have you with us this afternoon. You have heard the evidence which has gone on in the preceding session and we will be going over very similar ground in this session. What do you think the possibilities are of prioritisation in terms of money spent on youth custody and other aspects of youth justice services or beyond?

  Mike Thomas: The reality is that it is generally accepted that custody generally does not work for children and young people. In terms of a reinvestment, it clearly makes sense to reduce the amount of money that is currently spent on custody while retaining a safe custodial environment and moving those resources over into Youth Offending Teams in order to prevent youngsters from committing offences in the first place but more importantly reducing re-offending rates which is something that generally speaking custody is incapable of doing.

  Q212  Chairman: What would need to change to make that possible?

  Mike Thomas: A greater investment in Youth Offending Teams. The reality of the situation is we have seen more and more youngsters come into the criminal justice system and Youth Offending Teams working with more and more young people. We know from the Audit Commission Report of 1996 that one of the big things that was held up there was the amount of time being spent face-to-face with young people was just over an hour a week. The 2004 Report basically said it had hardly increased at all. I think now, if we were to look at again, because we have seen more youngsters come into the system in the last four years, we would be back to an hour a week. That is not a sufficient amount of time to turn around a young person's offending lifestyle. I would move the budget from custody into Youth Offending Teams in order to reduce the numbers of youngsters that are going to be out committing further offences.

  Q213  Chairman: We will be exploring some of this in more detail.

  John Coughlan: There are lots of potential to increase the efficiency in the system. We have heard a lot about redirecting resources for youth custody and there is a lot to be explored there but I do not think that is only area of potential efficiency. My YOT manager would say to me there is a silting up in the system around the rigidity of some of the processes and orders and disposals that the court and the system require at the moment which requires him to do that piece of work. Around a one hour a week for young people he does not think you necessarily need that, they may benefit from another sort of intervention which means he cannot do more than the hour a week for the young person who is getting closer to custody. There are other efficiencies than those which apply to custody. Also I would want to see a much more coherent approach to the principles of what has driven the establishment of children's trusts to be applied also to the youth justice agenda. The principles of earlier intervention, which are at the heart of what YOTs want to do but have been isolated from the principles of early intervention which sits within the ECM agenda, need to be brought together. We are suffering from the moment when, a few weeks after ECM was published, we had a separate strategy for young offenders which meant there was a message out there as if to say every child matters unless they are an offender in which case there is a separate strategic approach. We still have more work to do to harmonise those approaches.

  Q214  Chairman: Do you think when the Secretary of State reminds us rather forcibly that we are not always talking about what we might think of as children, I think his expression was something like "rather large yobs", is that a warning we have to heed: we are not talking about a limited number of vulnerable children who do not pose much of a safety threat but people who are potentially dangerous?

  John Coughlan: We have to recognise the dangers concerned. I would not stray into that kind of language but I think that local services need to be responsive to the concerns of local communities about their safety on the streets and their concerns about future vulnerabilities. I also think we have to be driven by the legislative framework that sits around children and young people up to the age of 18 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is not an approach which is an apologist approach but is an approach which says that children and young people need to be given respect and rights alongside their responsibilities. I am not straying into an approach which suggests that we go soft. We need firm and clear disposals but I think if we are to redesign the system we also have to get out of some of the approaches which demonise young people. I know the Children's Commissioner would reinforce those points strongly.

  Q215  Mr Sharma: How effective are the mechanisms through which YOTs and local authorities can currently influence priorities for local spending on youth crime?

  Mike Thomas: It would differ from local authority to local authority and from Youth Offending Team to Youth Offending Team. We heard before about the way in which Youth Offending Teams are actually funded. By and large around about 50% of funding for Youth Offending Teams comes from local authorities themselves and the rest is made up from the Youth Justice Board, then we have health, probation, chief executives' departments and such like. It has been increasingly difficult to tap into resources to increase the amount of expenditure on Youth Offending Teams and part of the reason for that is that there needs to be a demonstration of what has actually been saved to the community but also to each of the agencies that make up the funded regime for Youth Offending Teams in terms of potential savings there.

  Q216  Mrs Riordan: Following on from influencing priorities what use is made of local data on young offenders by local partners in planning and prioritising resources, and to what extent is this information used to support the case for access to essential services to local authorities and other agencies?

  Mike Thomas: We make much more use than we used to of assessment tools and such like. The ASSET assessment tool is very good in terms of initially identifying some of the triggers that might lie behind the young person's offending. That can then be used in terms of writing a pre-sentencing report which can then be used in terms of putting a package together to magistrates. It needs a discussion with local partners in terms of identifying a young person as having potential mental health difficulties or substance misuse and the resources being there to actually tap into to provide input for that young person. If magistrates do not have the confidence that those resources are going to be there, regardless of what is written into a pre-sentence report, they are not going to along with the proposal of the Youth Offending Team. It is critical that those resources are there and the key is finding the levers to access those resources, particularly issues to do with accommodation for youngsters coming out of custody. Again there are some issues there in terms of whose responsibility it might be to provide that accommodation.

  Q217  Mrs James: Coming back to what is happening outside of the youth justice system at the moment, if a pot of money created from the money spent on locking up young people from their area over a period of about three years or so were made available to local authorities, how could it be used to reduce the use of custody and is this a sensible policy?

  Mike Thomas: I think it is an extremely sensible policy given all the difficulties in terms of imposing such a regime. I would go further than saying it should be a pot of money given to the local authority and say it is a pot of money that should go to those statutory partners within the Youth Offending Team. Each of those statutory partners are key in terms of providing resources that will not just reduce the likelihood of a young person committing further offences but reduce the likelihood of them needing access to a whole range of statutory services at a later date. The principle would be a really interesting one to look at. As you say, over a period of three years you can see how much money has been spent in terms of the numbers of youngsters going into custody in particular areas and cost that back in terms of that being the pot of money that might have been available to provide resources to avoid a custodial sentence at the end of the day.

  Bob Reitemeier: Can I say at the beginning that in addition to being chief executive of The Children's Society I am also a member of the Youth Justice Board. I think it is an absolute fundamental idea that needs to be promoted but I would also not automatically jump to the need for additional money. I would still urge the Committee to look at reducing the numbers in custody dramatically and therefore there is money that would otherwise have been spent on custody that would be available. One of the lessons we have learnt is the real need to address appropriately the needs of the young person, and that is where it is very important to look at the assessment process and the approach we are taking. Ultimately everybody is interested in changing the behaviour and helping the young person to change his or her behaviour so rather than a punishment approach it is more of a needs assessment approach that addresses behavioural change. One of the important factors in that is having the young person linked to a lead professional, somebody who is there for that young person who can stay with that young person through the various phases of development that follow. That has proven to be very effective and one of the things that actually is missing in that young person's life generally. The other thing that we are experiencing is the same young people we are talking about who end up either in community sentences or in custody are the same young people who are excluded from school and have mental health problems, this ping pong match that a young person is exposed to moving from agency to agency. If you have a lead professional they can help navigate that but also there is that trust and respect that is absolutely vital to development which helps that young person address behaviour.

  Q218  Chairman: What is the most effective way of making this transfer actually happen if the local authority or possibly the partnership YOT's team were actually footing the bill for whichever disposal was made? Although bearing in mind it would be the sentencer who makes the disposal, at the moment it is not the local authority or the local body which purchases the expensive custody; it is a wholly different national structure safely tucked away with decision makers like yourself on the Youth Justice Board. The incentive is not there whereas in some US states they say we are spending all this money in this way, let us move on to do more of this which requires some kind of engagement between the local decision-making body and the sentencers. Could it be made to work that way?

  John Coughlan: If I can come in with a local authority perspective on that, I do not accept that the incentive is not there. I can see an academic argument of a perverse incentive to do nothing and allow custody to take its course and that takes away the problem but we know, at a local level, it does not take the problem away at all but brings back, within a few short weeks, a hardened criminal into the local community. I do not accept the perverse incentive argument as something which happens in practice. I do think that one of the unintended consequences of the establishment of the YOTs and the driver of the Youth Justice Board was almost to say to local authorities and the partners we have done that now, we have invested in the YOT, we can step back from our responsibilities to youth justice because we know we have this burgeoning set of other pressures around other young people and their families even though the overlap is great. While progress has been going on within the youth justice process there has also been radical progress, admittedly at slightly different speeds across the country, in the establishment of children's trusts, better joint working between schools and their local partners at a very local level, better joint working particularly between education, traditional children's social services and health. There is more work still to be done but it has moved apace since ECM came on board. Certainly I think that there is capacity to make sure we have stronger acknowledgment of the collective responsibilities for young offenders in the way we have responsibility for young people who are vulnerable for other causes and there is more progress to be had there. The questions will go in this direction but I also would want to make comments on these points about the degree to which the local authority holds the purse strings but does not hold control over the disposals. There are some substantial issues there.

  Q219  Chairman: Do you have a way out?

  John Coughlan: I am not sure what the way forward would be. We need to review the criteria for sentencing for custody. According to my information of the young people from Hampshire who have ended up in custody in recent times, 40% did not have violent, sexual or significant repeat offences but had fallen into the trap of custody through other routes.

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