The changing face of youth justice

Richard Garside
Thursday, 14 February 2013

Plans from the Ministry of Justice to put education 'at the heart' of youth detention has provoked mixed reaction. Few would argue against the proposition that youth detention facilities should prioritise education. However, as Howard League chief executive Frances Crook points out,

'We should never send children to prison to get and education... Almost all the children who end up in custody could be dealt with in the community.

Against this background, it is worth remembering that in the youth justice system in England and Wales things have, in a number of ways, got better in recent years.

Take, for instance, the numbers of under 18s found guilty in courts and sentenced to custody. The graph below shows the trend over the eleven years to 2011/12. The blue 'number sentenced' bars are counted on the left-hand axis. The red 'immediate custody' line is counted on the right-hand axis.

The numbers of juveniles sentenced in court fell by 29 percent across the period, from 49,436 in 2001/02 to 34,993 in 2011/12. The numbers sentenced to custody fell by 43 percent, from 6,187 to 3,530.

A distinct gender pattern was also apparent. Far fewer girls than boys come to court each year, but the decline in sentencing and custody for girls was more marked. The number of girls sentenced fell by 38 percent during the period, from 6,766 to 4,164. For boys the equivalent figures were 42,670 and 30,574, a decline of 28 percent. Girls sent to custody fell from 407 to 186, a decline of 54 percent. For boys it was 5,780 and 3,320, a fall of 43 percent.

Unsurprisingly the average annual numbers of under 18s in custody has also declined: from 2,801 in 2001/02 to 1,963 in 2011/12.

It is  worth bearing in mind that custody is a minority sentence for under 18s. In 2011/12 only ten percent of those sentenced at court were sent to custody. The vast majority - some 71 percent - were given a community sentence. Over the past decade the balance between different sentencing options has also changed. Proportionately fewer are being sent to custody. Proportionately more are receiving a community sentence.

That said, the average length of custodial sentences has risen, from 11 months in 2001/02 to 13.1 in 2011/12. The picture across the period is therefore one of fewer, but longer, custodial sentences.

One of the reasons why fewer under 18s are ending up in court and, ultimately, in prison is that fewer are being arrested by the police.  In 2010/11, 210,660 under 18s were arrested by the police for a notifiable offence (in essence those offences the police have to record and report to the Home Office). This was a reduction of 34 percent on the 320,600 arrested in 2000/01. As with the sentencing and custody figures, girls were far less likely than boys to be arrested.

As I have pointed out in an earlier blog, trends in recorded/notifiable crime fell during  this period. The following graph of changes in 'proven offences' illustrates this trend in relation to under 18s.

The 'proven offences' category combines both court convictions and out of court 'disposals' such as penalty notices and cautions. Young people might, of course, accept an out of court settlement regardless of guilt for fear of facing court and a potential conviction. So 'proven offences' is a rather ideological description for a number of different youth justice processes. It nonetheless offers an interesting window onto criminal justice processes.

As the graph illustrates, total 'proven reoffending' fell between 2001/02 and 2011/12, by 47 percent. Different offence groups showed different rates of decline, from the 73 percent in the case of motoring offences to a much smaller eight percent decline in drugs offences.

I explore in more detail in an earlier blog some of the broader factors that might be at work explaining these general trends. What these declines show, as with other trends examined here, is a general decline in the caseload of the youth justice system in England and Wales.

Not all in the youth justice system has got better. As noted earlier, sentence length increased. The resort to the physical restraint of prisoners was also higher in 2011/12 than it was in 2008/09. Given the falling numbers in custody this means it is being used proportionately more. Hospitalisation of prisoners following restraint has also grown in recent years. These are developments of considerable concern.

A number of recent youth justice trends are welcome. The absolute numbers of young people processed by the youth justice system has declined significantly. There are now far fewer young people in custody than a decade ago. Things can sometimes get better.

But the current declines will not necessarily be continued in the years to come, nor be sustained at it present, still high, level. Threat, violence and the resort to physical restraint also remain significant problems for the youth prison estate, as for the prison estate more generally.

The big unknown is the impact of austerity, recession and unemployment on young people in general and on the youth justice system in particular. Economic shocks tend to place additional demands on various institutions of social maintenance and control. The criminal justice system will be no exception, regardless of current attempts to reduce its budgets.

Note on data

All the graphs in this blog are drawn from the youth justice supplementary tables, currently available on the Ministry of Justice website. As government websites regularly change and links disappear the full dataset is also downloadable above.