Friday, 17 January 2014

A Secure College misses the chance for really radical Youth Justice Reform

What is it that lies behind the desire of every generation of Tory politicians to invent new forms of institutions for juvenile delinquents? Sometimes it's political calculation; in the 80's, Willie Whitelaw needed short sharp shock detention centres as a tough counter weight to his controversial early release scheme for adult prisoners.  For others, it’s a genuine if misguided belief in the effectiveness of closed establishments. Kenneth Clarke arrived at the Home Office in 1992 with plans to revive approved schools to set straight the unruly youths who, the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire told him, were responsible for most of the area’s offending. These morphed into Michael Howard’s Secure Training Centres which would take persistent young offenders off the streets as part of his 27 point plan to address “the tidal wave of crime”. But with crime nowadays much lower down the list of public concerns and with   huge financial pressures facing his department, what‘s driving Chris Grayling’s proposal for a new secure college?

Almost certainly his plans for the 320 bed “fortified school” in Leicestershire and enhanced educational provision in the Prison service Young Offender Institutions (YOI’s) spell the end of the road for secure children’s homes (SCH’s). These small, mainly local authority run facilities provide very good quality care for highly troubled children but at considerable cost.  That their role for young offenders is to be wholly or partly phased out is suggested by the admission that while the new Secure College will serve young offenders from the Midlands and the East of England, “offenders from other areas could also be taken”.

Grayling’s overall approach is to make the penal system cheaper not smaller so it’s perhaps no surprise that the SCH places costing more than £200,000 per year have caught his attention.  SCH’s are unlikely to have crossed his radar previously because by and large they work well with a vulnerable and volatile population. Whatever the rhetoric about combining security with an increased educational focus,  a single large cheaply run facility is likely to be fraught with difficulty. Recent French experience with "√Čtablissements p√©nitentiaires pour mineurs", run jointly by the prison service and social workers does not inspire confidence in such a hybrid model.

Improving access to education in the YOI’s is of course welcome but can that on its own solve the fundamental inappropriateness of prison settings for juveniles.. NOMS has reportedly recommended that for every 12 young people there should be one officer as the minimum staffing standard which means a reduction in some establishments.   The new ratio emerged from a staffing review prompted by the large and welcome fall in the number of under-18s in custody in recent years.  But with more and more young offenders managed in the community, those who are locked up are the most damaged and demanding young people, requiring more generous not more restricted staff numbers.  
Arguably, the falling juvenile custodial population has brought the MoJ the economies it needs and opens an opportunity for a much more radical overhaul of  youth justice than the one announced today.  

First, reshaping the Detention and Training Order so that very short periods of detention can be followed by a longer spell of training in the community could perhaps halve the number of custodial places currently required. It would better meet the requirement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child   shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.

Second local government could be made responsible for meeting the costs of these orders. Devolving funds could stimulate the kind of creative alternative provision that over time would take the place of imprisonment. In this way prison custody could be phased out for 15 year olds perhaps within a year, 16 year olds within two, and 17 year olds within three. 

Finally,  Mr Grayling should be looking to shift responsibility away from his department. If he is serious about educating young offenders,  it’s a job for the Ministry of Education, not for him.


  1. Shame Government does not ask those with intimate knowledge of criminal justice policies BEFORE they maker announcements!

    Andrew Hatton

  2. Maybe a bit soft on Ken Clarke?.. change in cautioning policy? It really was him who came up with STCs

    Graham Hill