Monday, 12 December 2016

The Youth Justice Review : A Plumber responds to an Architect

There’s a lot to be said for the report of Charlie Taylor’s youth justice review, which has finally been published along with the government’s response; and one question. What will actually be done with it?

We learned yesterday that two secure schools will be created but when, where and in place of what remain to be seen. Ironically they are probably the least promising of the review’s recommendations. Despite mountains of evidence about the ineffectiveness of custodial institutions, Taylor has felt obliged to invent yet another species.  Approved schools, Detention Centres, Borstals, Youth Treatment Centres, Young Offender Institutions, and Secure Training Centres have all proved more or less expensive failures. The Coalition’s plan for a Secure College was quickly killed off by Michael Gove before he announced the review.  Do we need another variant?

From what little detail is available, Taylor’s schools seem most likely to resemble what are now known as Secure Children’s Homes (SCH’s) –small therapeutic  establishments , mostly local government run,  necessarily expensive and whose numbers have declined substantially in recent years. The secure schools will be bigger than SCH’s with 60-70 places – probably a mistake- but more promisingly Taylor wants to see more temporary release and lower security levels.  Reversing the decline in the number of SCH’s combined with serious reforms to reduce further the need for under 18’s to be locked up at all looks a better strategy than devising yet another generation of closed institutions . 

To his credit, Taylor does go some way down the demand reduction road, recommending an end to short custodial sentences, fewer remands in custody and young people- children first, offenders second for him– as far as possible kept away from the “tainting” effects of the formal justice system.  The review proposes that children under 16 should only have their liberty restricted exceptionally if they pose a serious risk to the public. On these recommendations the Government response is distinctly cool.

It’s lukewarm on Taylor’s proposed devolution of the costs of custody to local authorities, together with the power to commission the kind of services that children in trouble require. While recognising the need for greater input from health and education, Taylor thinks the mandatory model of Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) may be past its sell by date, inhibiting potentially more effective partnership arrangements. A logical consequence of devolution, that’s still a risky call in a climate of cost cutting. The government seem to recognise that an absence of a statutory duty to run a YOT, and the removal of ring fenced funding may produce not local innovation but the kind of neglect that required the dirigiste reforms of the 1990’s.   The result of this part of the review is…another review. 

The driver of those 1990's reforms, the Youth Justice Board, looks to have survived.  Taylor thought it could be replaced by a Youth Justice Commissioner in the heart of rather at arms- length from the MoJ, with a potential move to the education department. Instead, when it plays a part of the new review of governance, the YJB is unlikely to cast itself as a Christmas voting turkey.  

Taylor’s most radical idea is to have decisions about dealing with children in trouble made not by magistrates in a youth court –though they would continue to decide on matters of guilt and innocence- but by new panels akin to those operating in the Scottish Children’s Hearings system. These would not be mini courts- though some current JP’s could become members alongside others with experience of young people, in particular their education. Panels would draw up, publish and review plans for each child setting out not only their obligations not also those of the agencies responsible for their care and supervision.   The most serious cases would continue to go to the Crown court but with plans drawn up by the panels. 

It’s a bold proposal but moving from a “justice system with some welfare to a welfare system with justice” has proved many steps too far for the MoJ. What would be the biggest change to youth justice since 1969 is going nowhere. There are plenty of worthwhile recommendations which the Government can take forward  - better training for appropriate adults, improved legal advice,  less criminalisation of children in care , streamlined assessment and a limit on criminal records. More staff in YOI’s will be useful too, confirming Liz Truss as less of an architect and more of a plumber.  

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