The youth justice population has changed significantly in the past 10 years. The number of children entering the youth justice system has decreased by 85% since March 2009, but those children who do enter the system tend to have complex needs.
Children and young people tend to be imprisoned for much more serious offences than was the case 10 years ago, particularly for violence-against-the-person offences. The cohort entering the system are some of the most vulnerable children in society, with many having mental health issues, learning disabilities, and experience of care. The changing nature of the population presents challenges to the youth justice system, and it is not always clear how well the system has adapted to meet the specific needs of children now being dealt with.
Children are diverted from formal processing through the criminal justice system by various means, such as out-of-court disposals, and many attribute the decline in the number of children in the system to the success of such alternate routes. Many consider out-of-court disposals an effective means of addressing lower-level crime, but we are aware of concerns such as an absence of clear evidence of the effectiveness of OOCDs, particularly for community resolutions (where data is not recorded centrally), and of inconsistencies in practice across England and Wales.
Diversion schemes are considered to have played a part in reducing the number of children being formally processed, but White children may have benefitted more than children from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. First-time entrants (FTEs) from a White ethnic background represent 75% of the whole population, down from 85% a decade ago; in the same period, the proportion of FTEs from a Black background doubled from 8% to 16%. Racial disproportionality is prevalent throughout the system: we are concerned that disproportionality appears to have become worse in many areas, despite work to address it.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales, at 10, is among the lowest in Europe. Many who gave us evidence recommended that age be increased. We are not convinced that the case has been made to do so, but we do consider there to be enough evidence to require the Ministry of Justice to review the question.
The youth court system differs from the adult system. In spite of efforts to provide a less formal experience, the court experience can be daunting and difficult for many children and young people. We are unsure how the courts have adapted adequately to meet the complex needs of those who go through the court system.
Some children and young people are processed formally through the courts, but fewer are sentenced there now than was the case 10 years ago. A range of options is available to sentencers, but in light of concern about the appropriateness and flexibility of current sentencing options, we recommend a review of current sentencing options for children.
We note the high number of children held in custody on remand, a significant proportion of whom do not go on to receive a custodial sentence. A number of factors contribute to that. BAME children are disproportionately remanded into custody. We welcome the review of youth remand being conducted by the Ministry of Justice.