Beyond Youth Custody

Working together to tackle reoffending

Pippa Goodfellow
Programme Manager, Beyond Youth Custody

As the youth justice sector awaits Charlie Taylor’s review, there is anticipation of large scale reform. The interim report indicated that reform will focus on the youth custodial estate, moving towards smaller units, closer to home, with a focus on education and a therapeutic approach. In this climate of review, it’s important to reflect on the current effectiveness of youth justice and the experiences of young people themselves in custody.

As a result of recent reductions in the numbers of children entering custody, those who are in custody are more likely to display an entrenched pattern of offending behaviour, committed more serious offences and have more serious problems. Reoffending rates after custody remain stubbornly high with many young people continuing in a destructive cycle of crime that they struggle to get out of. Many of these young people have had chaotic lives. Many have experienced trauma, abuse, bereavement, periods in the care system, school exclusion, drug or alcohol dependency and mental health problems. Often young people in custody are isolated from their families or carers when they need them the most. The closure of some institutions and restructuring of the secure estate more generally has meant that a large proportion of young people end up in custody a long way from home.

In responding to these challenges it is imperative that agencies supporting young people in the system work effectively together. Interventions that address multiple and complex problems do not work in isolation. Yet it will not be a surprise that young people tell us joined up working rarely happens in practice. All too often young people leaving custody experience a system that is disjointed and inconsistent; driven by competing priorities that results in the types of experiences such as clashing appointments or repeated questions that push young people further away from the vital support they need.

Of course the many professionals working with us recognise this problem and work tirelessly to address it. There is no shortage of dedicated professionals in the youth justice system. Yet effective join up is too often dependent on personal commitment rather than system change. So how then, as we await government reform, can we redress this problem, to work across boundaries, challenge competing priorities and provide the personalised care that is needed to reverse the current debilitating trends of high reoffending rates of young people leaving custody?

Partners need to work collaboratively
The input of a wide range of agencies in itself is not enough. There needs to be proper coordination between custodial facilities and the community – between the statutory, voluntary, community and business sectors. Changing the way a young person behaves and thinks about themselves is challenging. It is likely they will need substantial support in order to stimulate and reinforce change requiring consistency, resilience and drive, not only on the part of the young person, but from those working to support them. Where appropriate support is available and agencies work together, custody, and its aftermath, can provide young people with the interventions they need to overcome their problems and start the process of building a better life. Central to this is making sure resettlement is the driving force of sentence planning from the earliest opportunity – when it is likely to be most effective.

Information sharing
Good communication and the sharing of information relating to a young person can help secure estate staff and those working in resettlement meet the needs of young people. A lack of communication between agencies and custodial establishments, or between individuals within an establishment, mean that information can fall through gaps. As Lord Harris’s review into deaths of young adults in custody found, where information is not shared effectively, this can hamper rehabilitation and lives can be put at risk. Information sharing between Children’s Services, Youth Offending Teams and different custodial establishments should be routinely facilitated. ‘Data protection’ should not be used as an excuse for agencies to withhold information.
The role of families
Where appropriate, family involvement can be an important resource which can continue long after the resettlement agencies have withdrawn. Crucially, the family can offer a sense of connectedness with both the locality and the conventional world. This can promote stability and counteract the vulnerabilities that are often a consequence of incarceration. The young person’s familial role and relationships can also be important aspects of their personal identity. The family can also identify and underline strengths and goals that will support the young person’s personal development. Families can also offer important practical support to enable young people to achieve their aims. Families can therefore be seen to be central to resettlement work, and it is crucial that they feel ‘part of the process’ rather than being alienated by it. Where possible they should be integral to resettlement planning – attending sentence planning meetings so that they are involved in preparations for release. A disproportionately high number of young people in custody have spent time in local authority care, many being moved through several placements. For these children, it is so important that social workers are actively involved in working with other agencies and families throughout the sentence and beyond. We must find a way to overcome the challenge of social workers having to travel long distances to custodial establishments to ensure that young people are supported in a consistent way.

Changing a young person’s path can be hard. But it can be done. By putting resettlement at the heart of a custodial sentence, young people can take the important steps needed to change their path and build constructive links with their community.

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Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes