What is the future for youth justice in Wales?

Richard Owen explains why Wales needs its own youth justice policy.

The Commission on Devolution in Wales (the Silk Commission) recommended that the treatment and rehabilitation of young offenders should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. But what could and would a devolved youth justice policy look like?

The youth justice system for England and Wales is not effective. There is little improvement in the reoffending rate of those young offenders who have served custodial sentences. Seventy three per cent of offenders held within YOIs reoffend with a high likelihood that they will reoffend within a year.

The State has not always been up to the task of caring for these vulnerable young people. There is a problem of bullying in Young Offender Institutions (YOI) with 25% of young offenders claiming to be victimised, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, says parents should be terrified if they had a son in Feltham YOI where Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his racist, psychopathic cellmate in 2000. Three under eighteens have died at their own hand in YOIs since 2011. All three were extremely vulnerable; all three entered custody with known mental health concerns; and two were engaging in behaviour where there is known to be a heightened risk of self-harm.

It is not just their emotional wellbeing that is being neglected, but their educational needs are also not currently being addressed. Young offenders have often been arriving in YOIs with a pre-existing record of educational under-achievement. For example, in 2012 half of 15-17 year olds entering public sector YOIs were assessed as having the literacy levels equivalent to that expected of a 7-11 year old. Is there a push to make up this deficit whilst young offenders are being incarcerated? No, if anything YOIs just add to the problem. A recent study found that only one out of nine YOIs managed by HM Prison Service delivered the minimum fifteen hours per week education they are contracted to provide and a ban has been imposed on sending books from outside into YOIs. The current coalition government seeks to address this in England and Wales by announcing that it will establish a Secure College in 2017. It is claimed that a Secure College will offer a multi-agency approach to tackling offending by putting education at its heart integrated with health, substance misuse and wider services. How the ban on sending books into YOIs – as books under the current system are a privilege to be earned not an educational right – puts education at the heart of the system is not explained.

A devolved system would be under great pressure to produce better results, as the current costs of failure are too high at any time but particularly during an age of austerity. The current youth justice system in England and Wales spends £800 million each year tackling crime estimated to cost £11 billion per annum.

In Scotland a more welfare based approach is taken to young offenders, and there is reason to believe a devolved Welsh system would too. The Scottish system puts the welfare of the young offender at the heart of the system assessing their needs whereas the system in England and Wales tends to define the young offender by their criminality. The problem with the latter approach is that it further lowers the already weak self-esteem of the young offenders reinforcing their sense of worthlessness and increasing the chances of re-offending.

The Scottish system uses a Children’s Reporter based in every local authority area. Children are referred to the Reporter from a number of sources and for a variety of reasons. Once a Reporter receives a referral he/she is under a duty to investigate. Following the investigation, the Reporter can make a number of decisions including referring the case to a Children’s Hearing. A Hearing recognises that the line between needing care and offending can be blurred. The Scottish system does not see a dichotomy between an abused child and an offending child; it simply sees an individual child with needs that should be addressed.

There is a strong correlation between youth offending and the socio-economic circumstances which prevailed during childhood and adolescence: a quarter of male young offenders having been in care; two thirds of children and young people in custody come from families where the structure has broken down; fifty one per cent come from deprived households which is defined as households on benefits or where there is unsuitable accommodation compared to 13% in the population as a whole; and persistent young offenders have higher than average levels of loss, bereavement, abuse and violence experienced within the family. Recognising this it is a fundamental principle of the Scottish Hearings system that children who offend and children who are in need of care and protection are dealt with in the same system. This individuated integrated approach occurs at the time of the Hearing rather than after conviction as is envisaged by the Secure College proposal.

In 2012 I was involved in the TXT Inside/Outside project along with the art and media partnership Artstation and academics from Cardiff University. The aim of the project was to engage the young offenders and the general public in a discussion about the treatment of young offenders using narrative techniques. The voices of young people held in custody (Inside) were ‘gathered’ in the form of text messages and ‘released’, to be seen, heard and responded to by the public at large (Outside). The focal point of the action was a ‘stage event’ in the centre of Cardiff, where the text messages of a small group of young people in custody were displayed on a large screen, with the public being invited to respond by texting their own messages. A documentary film from the event, which included the projections and interviews with the public, was subsequently shown to and discussed with participating young people in custody.

The progressive attitude of members of the public towards young offenders was striking. They recognised that young offenders’ behaviour was challenging and that they needed to account for it, with crimes of violence naturally causing particular concern, but that there was a recognition that young offenders have often led difficult lives and that the current system with its tendency towards stigmatisation was not helping anyone. Although previous studies have shown that ‘face-ing’ young offenders, i.e. having information about them, means that the public is more likely to rate them more favourably so it is possible similar results would have been obtained anywhere. However, from the random sample of the members of the public who happened to passing the ‘stage event’ it would seem there would be little opposition in Wales to a more welfare based approach to young offenders.

The current system of youth justice is hugely expensive and could not be justified on any evidence based approach, as it seems to do very little in terms of reducing re-offending. If youth justice is devolved, there does not seem to be any political obstacle that would prevent Wales moving to the more welfare orientated approach that exists in Scotland, assessing and addressing all the young offenders’ needs from the outset.

Richard Owen is the Law Clinic Director at University of Essex. This article is based on a collaborative project with young offenders in Parc Prison.

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