Preservation of the Youth Justice Board is vital
Action over the last decade to tackle youth offending appears to be succeeding, according to the annual report from the Youth Justice Board (YJB), published this summer.
The board was set up in 1997 to oversee the youth justice system and safeguard the welfare of those under-18s in the criminal justice system.
It judges its performance against three measures – the number of first-time entrants to the system, re-offending rates, and the use of custody.
The report shows that the number of first-time entrants continues to fall. In 2001 90,720 people under 18 entered the criminal justice system for the first time. In 2011 that had fallen by 57% to 38,613. Reoffending fell 14% between 2000 and 2010 and the number of people in custody has fallen by around 30% since 2000 - from 2,610 to 1,811 this April.
The board had been earmarked for abolition by the coalition government in its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ legislation, the Public Bodies Act. But due to lobbying by peers and the YJB’s work during last summer’s riots, it was saved from the flames at the eleventh hour.
The approach taken to youth offending by the board has been very much driven by welfare considerations, designed to help, educate and reform the often very damaged children that come into the criminal justice system, rather than simply punish further those who have already been failed by society.
Large numbers of children who get into trouble come from backgrounds where there has been abuse and neglect. Many have spent time in care, and others have mental health issues - or for a combination of factors have not thrived in the education system.
Under the last Labour government the YJB was part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, underlining the welfare approach. But the Conservatives moved it under the umbrella of, first, the Home Office, and then the Ministry of Justice, where it remains, perhaps signalling its desire to demonstrate its tough approach to offending regardless of the age of the offender.
The preservation of the YJB should ensure that children and young people who commit crimes are appropriately dealt with as children, rather than receiving the same treatment as adults.
The reduction in the number of children in custody has meant that the YJB has been able to decommission 281 beds over the last year, saving £18m. Over the year its net expenditure fell from £454.5m to £338.9m.
But faced with the prospect of having to achieve further 30% budget cuts by 2015, will it have the money to continue to fund diversion sentences that magistrates and judges can have confidence in; its prevention strategies, and the packages of education and support for those in the secure estate?