Beyond Youth Custody

Constructive approaches – putting children first in the Youth Justice System

Sean Creaney and Stephen Case
Lecturers at Edge Hill University and Loughborough University

Beyond Youth Custody’s (BYC) framework for the effective resettlement of young people leaving custody promotes children’s active involvement in the decision-making process and details why practitioners must recognise and praise children’s positive attitudes and behaviours. The report advocates constructive approaches that are future orientated and strengths-based. In this blog, we promote meaningful participation, alongside critically exploring the challenges putting children first in a risk-focused context of youth justice.

In the Youth Justice System (YJS), resource and workload pressures, high caseloads and the implementation of new information and (risk-focused) assessment systems can constrain practitioner expertise, discretion and innovation. The systemic barriers further constrain children’s participation in the planning and execution of effective services. Children’s meaningful involvement in service design and delivery can prove beneficial in preventing offending, promoting positive outcomes and developing a principled, humane YJS. Indeed, the effectiveness of court orders (including degree of compliance) will be influenced by the extent of service user participation and engagement (commitment, belief) in their content and delivery. Acknowledging the child’s agency and allowing them a voice in the youth justice process facilitates engagement and transitions into desistance and positive outcomes.

It must be understood that children are on a life journey during which offending is typically transitory and relatively non-serious, constituting only one part of a much broader and more complex identity. They are children first and foremost in identity, status and capacity. Stopping offending (desisting) is a negotiated process, not a ‘one off event’. There will be times when they relapse, reoffending or refusing to comply with court orders. How this is dealt with remains critically important. Instigating breach proceedings without properly investigating the underlying causes of non-compliance can have the consequence of confirming a child’s identity as an ‘offender first’ and promoting offender- and offence-focused youth justice responses. This criminalising course of action can also prevent the child from pursuing a ‘good life’, one of purpose and meaning and damage the prospect of a new pro-social identify. Therefore, in the youth justice context specifically, they may particularly value the opportunity to ‘give their side of the story’ when there are issues with compliance.

Promoting desistance and positive outcomes

Desistance is concerned with how professionals assist children to move away from crime and live a fulfilling life. Attention is not directed at achieving short-term change but rather long-term transformation and promotion of positive outcomes in the form of individual and structural change. Positive outcomes are more likely when decision-making is shared, which itself may support relationship-building, participation and engagement. Legitimacy is crucial. Children may perceive their treatment by agents of the State (e.g. police, staff in YOTs and the secure estate) as illegitimate if they are not provided with the opportunity to inform the process, and influence decisions that affect them. Conversely, when children perceive their treatment by the YJS as legitimate (fair, just, moral), they are more likely to both comply and engage with interventions.

Applying desistance theory to practice may seem challenging. However, its core principles reflect good practice that all practitioners can sign up to, such as: establishing trusting/empathic relationships as a medium for change, instilling hope, encouraging shared decision-making and pursuing joint ownership of intervention plans and treatments. To this end, overly negative interventions that are demanding, tokenistic and imposed on children must be avoided. In particular, risk-based assessments and interventions are anathema to principled, progressive, children first practice in the YJS. The Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model that guides youth justice assessment and intervention is deficit based, prioritising the identification and management of risk to shape a system that is ‘effective’ at preventing offending. The RNR model and its obsession with producing quantifiable outputs has resulted in an unhealthy preoccupation with performance management. Indeed more meaningful participation and engagement by children – as opposed to short term ‘tick box’ consultation – is much more difficult to evidence. In direct contrast, the desistance-based ‘Good Lives Model’ and the promotional ‘Positive Youth Justice’ models, build on children’s strengths and capabilities, promoting service user involvement in decision-making processes and direct attention to creating new identities and pro-social lifestyles.

It may be challenging for these constructive, positive and progressive models to be realised in practice. Children may feel that because of their ‘offender’ status, they are unable to influence decision-making processes as they are not the ones in positions of power. Instead, they must comply with practitioner requests. In turn, practitioners may feel that the main focus of their work should be securing formal compliance by ensuring that children attend appointments, which can result in children adopting more of a passive and disengaged role in youth justice processes. Indeed, the task of co-producing programmes or interventions as part of court orders, with their attendant compulsory and imposed elements, has proved challenging.

For child-friendly, positive approaches to youth justice to be effective, they require the formation of trusting relationships between children and practitioners that facilitate children’s meaningful participation and engagement with decision-making processes. Essential to these relationships is the importance attached to the accumulation and expenditure of social capital.

Practitioners can enhance children’s social capital by creating legitimate opportunities for the building of networks/contacts. If children are presented with such opportunities, they can receive status and recognition that can prove beneficial as part of their move away from crime and help with identity transformation. The benefits of trusting, constructive child-practitioner relationships can be supplemented by peer mentoring. Described as ‘desistance in practice’, this involves those with lived experiences of system contact providing advice and support to their peers experiencing issues that they can relate to.  Peer mentors can be an ‘authentic’ and ‘credible’ voice, an inspiration to others that change is possible and support their peers to influence the decision making process. They can genuinely say “I know how you feel… I’ve been through that”. They can offer advice and support, encourage children to attend appointments and engage with interventions.

Crucially, constructive approaches to youth justice involve putting children first throughout all stages of the system, promoting meaningful participation and engagement, trusting/empathic relationships, future-oriented, motivating, and strengths-based practices.

To read more about constructive approaches, click here for BYC’s latest report – ‘Now all I care about is my future – supporting the shift’


Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University
Stephen Case, Loughborough University






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Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes