15.The youth justice population has changed significantly in the past 10 years; notably there has been a decline in the number of children and young people (aged 10–17) being dealt with. For the year ending March 2009, there were around 80,000 first-time entrants (FTEs). This figure is now around 11,900 - an 85% decrease. Furthermore, the number of children who have received a caution or sentence has fallen by 83% over the last 10 years from around 130,000 in 2009, to 21,700 in the year ending March 2019. The reduction in the number of children entering the system is also reflected in the number of children in custody. In the year ending March 2009, some 2,625 children were held in custody compared to 737 in the year ending March 2020. At May 2020 the youth custodial population stood at 614, but this is likely to be lower than would have been the case without the coronavirus outbreak as receipts through the justice system were reduced.
16.Along with the decrease in the number of children coming through the system, the type of offences being committed has changed. Young offenders are being incarcerated for more serious offences, particularly for those involving violence against the person. While the number of proven offences committed by children and young people has fallen for all crime types, the proportions for these offence groups have also changed. Figure 1 shows a 10.3 percentage point increase in violence against the person offences between March 2009 and 2019. Those offences have seen the greatest proportionate increase, gradually increasing from 19% in the year ending March 2009 to 30% of proven offences in the last year.
Figure 1: Percentage point change in the proportion of proven offences committed by children, England and Wales, between the years ending March 2009 and 2019
Source: Youth Justice Statistics 2018/19, Youth Justice Board and HMPPS
17.The average custodial sentence length for all offences has increased by six months from 11.4 to 17.7 months.
18.The smaller cohort of children and young people coming through the system tends to be more complex than used to be the case. The YJB told us that: “There is widespread consensus among practitioners in the youth justice sector that a smaller number of children has led to a greater concentration of those who are the most challenging and who have the highest need”. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) and the Youth Justice Legal Centre, part of Just for Kids Law, said: “Children coming into contact with the criminal justice system are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They have often suffered neglect and abuse, have care experience and high levels of mental health issues or learning disabilities”.
19.The Ministry of Justice also acknowledges those complex needs and vulnerability, and notes:
“Of those children admitted to custody between April 2014 and March 2016: 33% were assessed as having mental health problems; 14% of those in Young Offenders Institutions said they had gang problems; almost half were currently or were previously looked after children.
Of those children sentenced in 2014 who could be matched with education data: almost 25% on sentences of less than 12 months had been permanently excluded from school; 45% of those who received short custodial sentences had Special Education Needs without a statement at the end of their key stage 4 in academic year 2012/13, compared to 17% in the general pupil population.
The proportion of children serving a sentence under Section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (these are given for the most serious offences) has increased from 11% to 25%.”
20.Justin Russell, Chief Inspector of Probation, told us:
“ Over 54% had a learning or education need, 50% had a drug abuse need, 30% had a mental health need, and 17% had a speech and language need. They have quite profound needs. In cases going through court, those needs are even greater. A significant proportion are already in the care system. About a quarter of the court cases we look at are children who are looked after by local authorities, and we find that their needs are more pronounced and are not being met as well as other children’s.”
21.Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner, added:
“ Children now in custody have higher levels of vulnerability. To give you a few stats, 70% have mental health illness and 70% have communication difficulties. A few years ago, 39% of young people in prison had between 15 and 19 additional needs—not just one or two; and half, 49%, had been in care. That is a figure we need to hold on to—half have been in care.”
22.The Youth Justice Board’s recently published data on the needs of sentenced children in the youth justice system for the year April 2018 - March 2019 show that a large proportion of sentenced children assessed had concerns present across most concern types - for five of the 19 concern types, over 70% had a concern present. Figure 2 shows the concerns by type as a proportion of total children assessed. The YJB note that the data collected does not allow measurement of the extent or nature of these concerns, but that the data does give an indication of the vulnerabilities and complex needs of sentenced children within the system.
23.Charlie Taylor notes that failures in the wider system have contributed to the presence of these children in the youth justice system and states:
“Though children’s background should not be used as an excuse for their behaviour, it is clear that the failure of education, health, social care and other agencies to tackle these problems contribute to their presence in the youth justice system”.
Figure 2: Concerns by type as a proportion of total children assessed, England and Wales, year ending March 2019
Source: Youth Justice Board, Assessing the needs of sentenced children in the Youth Justice System 2018/19
24.Although fewer children enter the youth justice system than used to be the case, those who do are more complex individuals. The cohort includes children who have mental health or substance misuse issues. Some have previously been excluded from school; many are, or have been, looked-after children. The complexity of the issues that these children have faced, as shown in the graph above, highlights the need for a whole-system approach involving a range of public agencies beyond those of the criminal justice system, and we recommend that much greater priority be given to this in the development of future policy and practice.
10 Youth Justice Board, Ministry of Justice and the Office of National Statistics, (30 January 2020)
11 Youth Justice Board, Ministry of Justice and the Office of National Statistics, (30 January 2020)
12 HM Prison and Probation Service, (accessed 08 September 2020)
13 Youth Justice Board, Ministry of Justice and the Office of National Statistics, (30 January 2020)
14 Youth Justice Board, Ministry of Justice and the Office of National Statistics, (30 January 2020)
15 Youth Justice Board, Ministry of Justice and the Office of National Statistics, (30 January 2020)
16 Youth Justice Board ()
17 Just for Kids Law ()
18 Ministry of Justice ()
19 [Justin Russell]
20 [Anne Longfield]
21 Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, (28 May 2020)
22 For this data set, a sentenced child is one who received a Referral Order, Reparation Order, Youth Rehabilitation Order or custodial sentence between 1st April 2018 to 31st March 2019.
23 Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, (28 May 2020)
24 Charlie Taylor, Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales, (December 2016), p 2
25 Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, (28 May 2020)