Ten years of Labour's youth justice reforms: an independent audit

Author: 
Enver Solomon and Richard Garside
Date: 
Wednesday, 21 May, 2008

The government's wide ranging youth justice reforms have had no measurable impact on levels self-reported youth offending, according to an independent audit published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Ten years of Labour's youth justice reforms: an independent audit  says that despite substantial investment in radically restructuring and expanding the youth justice system success has been far more mixed and ambiguous than the government says and claims of significant success are overstated.

The audit makes an independent assessment of the reforms to the youth justice system since the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which led to the creation of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) and youth offending teams (YOTs) in England and Wales, and considers the extent to which the government has delivered on its ambitious programme. It highlights that far more children have been criminalised and imprisoned and that youth offending teams have struggled to meet the multiple social needs behind their offending.

Ten years of Labour's youth justice reforms: an independent audit looks at spending levels on youth justice and the performance against a range of key targets, including youth crime levels, first time entrants to the youth justice system, the time from arrest to sentence, the use of custody and re-offending rates. It also considers progress on meeting the social and personal needs of children and young people in the youth justice system including, accommodation; education, training and employment; substance misuse and mental health. .

The key findings of the audit are:

  • Youth justice spending - Labour has substantially increased spending. Since 2000-2001 spending on youth justice by the YJB and the statutory agencies that contribute to YOT budgets has increased in real terms by 45%. Excluding probation, youth justice has received the largest real terms increase of all the main criminal justice agencies.
  • Youth crime - Targets have been missed with self-reported youth offending remaining stable. All the expenditure and activity to reduce youth crime has had no measurable impact.
  • First time entrants - Attempts to reduce the number of children who receive a youth justice disposal for the first time is proving a demanding task against a background of increasing numbers of children being drawn into the youth justice system.
  • Arrest to sentence - Speeding up the time from arrest to sentence was an early priority and targets were met ahead of schedule but more recently performance has been mixed.
  • The use of custody - Despite commitments made by the YJB to reduce the number of children locked up performance is currently deteriorating with numbers increasing by 8% since March 2005 against a target of a 10% reduction.
  • Re-offending - The targets have all been missed with the latest figures showing little progress. The government has been beset with problems in setting, revising and failing to hit its reconviction targets for children.
  • Meeting needs: accommodation; education, training and employment; substance misuse; mental health - Nearly all the targets set relating to each area of need have not been met. This suggests that the multi agency make up of YOTs is not necessarily working as well as was hoped and are not necessarily as impressive as is often claimed. There are also significant reasons for questioning the value of the targets in providing a meaningful assessment of progress.

Enver Solomon co-author of the report, said:

`The government's record on youth crime and tackling the multiple needs of children caught up in the youth justice system is less impressive than many would have expected following a wide-ranging programme of reform and substantial investment. This raises questions about the success of the reforms in making an impact on the number of children and young people who offend, and demonstrates that the youth justice agencies can do little more than regulate youth crime. The government has placed too high expectations on the youth justice system and should be clearer about its limitations.'

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and co-author of the report said:

'The government's decade-long youth justice experiment was a bold attempt to deploy the full force of the youth justice system to tackle problematic and disruptive behaviour by young people. This new research suggests that the experiment has largely failed, if reported youth offending is the measure of success.

As the government continues to explore ways to control public spending this research suggests that ever growing criminal justice budgets are unlikely to deliver the long-term or sustainable success.'