Much media attention has been given over the past few weeks to the future of the prison estate in England and Wales, yet there has been relatively little coverage of the future of the youth justice system, now at an important crossroads. The annual Youth Justice Conference took place in Leicester last week, a far cry from the spotlight of Westminster.  Yet it is clear that the presence of HM Treasury was felt. Topics at the convention ranged from advocacy in the youth courts to the importance of early intervention, but an important thread running through all of these discussions is the need to do more with less.  The Youth Justice Board (YJB) was required to make £13.5 million of in-year budget reductions in August 2015. After consulting, the YJB ultimately decided on a £9m in-year reduction in the Youth Justice Grant paid to youth offending teams (YOTs).

This is a worry, given that the YOTs have played a huge part in the 51% fall in the number of young people coming into the youth justice system and the 40% reduction of the number of under 18s in custody since 2010/11. While this is undoubtedly good news, and reflects the dedicated work of multiple agencies as well the YOTs, it also means those who remain in the system are more likely to have higher levels of need.

The overall population of the secure estate for children and young people, including those aged 18 years old, was 1,049 as of September 2015. This is a much reduced population, compared to ten or even five years ago (see graph below).  Yet the needs of this cohort are much more complex. Young people in custody now have, for the most part, committed comparatively more serious offences, and come from more troubled backgrounds, with issues such as  mental health problems and substance abuse. A recent report for the YJB indicated that one-fifth (21%) of those in the youth secure estate had learning difficulties, 69% were at high risk of reoffending behaviour and nearly one-third (31%) of those in the youth secure estate had a substance misuse problem ‘considered to have a noticeably detrimental effect on their education, relationships and daily functioning’ . Though fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, looked-after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody and 39% had been on the child protection register or had experienced neglect or abuse.

Youth justice declining numbers

As a result, effective rehabilitation and care for these young people has become a more complicated task. The youth justice system is now increasingly involved in the care of children and young people with complex needs. The squeeze on budgets and the closure of a number of secure institutions for young people (due to the fall in numbers) means that a nationally run youth justice system based on current principles is beginning to make less sense. Now is the time for some serious consideration of how the youth justice system should look in future. Michael Gove has rightly recognised this and set up a review of youth justice led by Charlie Taylor.

We know that effective rehabilitation requires the contribution of a number of services, including health, education, accommodation and employment support. There has been a recognition of this in the youth justice system, with a new focus on education in the youth secure estate, and the roll-out of the ‘Future in Mind’ initiative led by the Department of Health (DH) as well as the increasing contribution of NHS Liaison and Diversion services in this area. Should the government now consider whether overall responsibility for youth justice is best located with the YJB as part of the Ministry of Justice or elsewhere in government?

At a more local level, the change and reduction in the youth offender population should lead to a restructuring towards smaller, locally based units that cater for multiple needs and where family engagement is easily possible. One promising model is that of the Campus Free School in Haringey, which will open in September 2016 providing specialist teaching and support to prevent reoffending for thirty 11-16 year olds who are subject to court orders or who have recently been released from custody.

Unfortunately, smaller and more tailored units cost a lot more, at a time when the youth justice budget is substantially reducing. This means that in times when budgets are declining, integration and partnership with other local agencies and bodies is essential. In many ways the youth justice system is an exemplar of collaboration already:  the local partnership model of the multi-agency YOTs is one of its real strengths.

The challenge now is twofold. First building relationships at a regional level to achieve needed economies of scale, such as with services where there is a lower or irregular demand, including specialist services and intensive supervision. Second to reach out to new potential partners, to share skills and resources. For instance, options currently being explored include the recent transfer of youth offending services in West Mercia to be hosted by the Police and Crime Commissioner, where the reasons given were both cost-saving and improved integration. Other areas of cooperation to be further explored on a local level include with schools, local employers and charities.

How the youth justice system reimagines itself in response to recent trends, while maintaining its focus on prevention and diversion, is an issue that CentreForum will be looking at in more detail in early 2016.  To get in contact about this work or other research in our rehabilitation programme, please contact Nikki Stickland: