Beyond Youth Custody

Four reforms that would dramatically improve youth resettlement

Jake McLeod
Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ)

The SCYJ, a coalition of 30 voluntary sector organisations championing youth justice reform, recently submitted its response to the Transforming Youth Custody Green Paper. Here SCYJ staff member Jake Mcleod discusses its submission, with a particular focus on its proposal to improve youth custody resettlement.

When 73% of young people leaving custody reoffend within the first year you know there’s a problem. It is painfully clear that the current way we deal with young offenders is ineffective. This is why earlier this year the Ministry of Justice launched their Green Paper; a radical rethink of the youth secure estate. In it they propose to ‘put education at the heart of youth custody’ by means of ‘Secure Colleges’: “education in a period of detention, rather than detention with education as an afterthought.”

In our response to the green paper we set out what we believe are the key principles that should guide the reforms to the youth secure estate. The reforms should:

  • reduce the numbers of children entering custody by raising the custody threshold, investing in early help and devolving further the costs of custody
  • meet children’s wider health and welfare needs, as well as their educational needs, while ensuring that there is real aspiration to achievement
  • focus on small, local facilities with high staff-to-child ratios that put positive relationships between staff and young people at the heart of practice
  • prioritise improving outcomes over reducing costs
  • ensure that ‘Secure College’ staff are trained to a high standard and have a clear career path.

However, we know that any progress made by young people in custody is often quickly lost once they exit the prison gates. There is a disconnect between custody and the community. And support on leaving custody is often meagre to say the least. If these issues are not addressed, any reforms to the secure estate will be of limited success. In our response, and below, we set out a number of potential reforms which we believe would drastically improve youth resettlement.

1. So, first, relationships. Family issues are often identified as one of the root causes of offending. If efforts are not made to address these while the young person is in custody, we are setting them up to fail by returning them to the same negative circumstances. This is why we are keen to see family and parenting staff working with young people’s families while they are detained. In a similar vein, we believe that post-release family therapy, such as Multi-Systemic Therapy, should be more widely available for inclusion in resettlement plans. And we would like to see one-to-one support, such as mentoring, accessible for all young people leaving custody. When delivered by well-trained, professional individuals, one-to-one support can provide young people with a positive role model, support, and can help build confidence and motivation to change.

2. Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) could play a far greater role in helping young people in custody to make a gradual transition back to the community, both by preparing them for release and by becoming an integral part of their sentence. For example, it could enable them to attend college interviews or to receive education in the community during their detention. Yet it is currently severely underused. This needs to change.

3. Extending the remit of the Virtual School Head (VSH) role (currently tasked with promoting the educational attainment of children in care) to include young people in and leaving custody is another idea we put forward in our response. As a champion of their needs, the VSH would ensure that the local authority and custodial facility are working effectively together and sharing the child’s educational information. In this light, we firmly support the deletion of clause 69 from the Children and Families Bill, so that children in custody with special educational needs (SEN) are included in the new SEN framework. The MoJ cannot hope to put ‘education at the heart of youth custody’ if it doesn’t also address SEN, which affect at least a third of children in custody.

4. We need to see similar legislative provisions put in place for children leaving custody as we provide for children leaving care. Specifically, a statutory duty should be placed upon on all local authorities and their partners, such as schools and housing, to support the rehabilitation of young people leaving custody. This would include ensuring that the young person is in education, training or employment and that safe accommodation is in place. These services would help to provide young people with the support they need to get into education, training or employment and, crucially, to escape the cycle of reoffending.

We look forward to seeing the MoJ’s next steps on this important area. Let’s hope that Ministers take this opportunity not only to radically reform youth custody, but also the rehabilitative services that currently can prevent young people from entering them in the first place or returning to them once released.

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What do you think about youth resettlement and the link between custody and community? Let us know in the comments.


Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes