It's time to recognise that we can’t wait for Whitehall to deliver the youth justice reforms we need

Government has missed the point on the Taylor review: time to look to the grassroots

Posted on 21 Dec in

Phil Bowen

Prosecuting children, putting them through courts and custody, makes them more, not less, likely to offend again. Most of us in the criminal justice field know this. The public, however, have are inclined to disbelieve or ignore this reality, despite repeated research which shows that sucking children and young people into the current of criminal justice prolongs rather than restricts their criminal careers.

It was therefore welcome and heartening that the value of minimising young people’s contact with the criminal justice system, as a crime reduction strategy, was picked up by Charlie Taylor in his long awaited review, published earlier this month. A former head teacher, he particularly recognised the value of schemes for children and young people which address their offending whilst keeping them out of courts and custody as much as possible. Over the past 18 months, we at the Centre have been supporting such point-of arrest diversion schemes. These schemes ensure that young people’s first offences are triaged into informal interventions, such as victim-offender mediation and cognitive behavioural programmes, thereby avoiding a criminal prosecution.

Behind these schemes sits a large body of international and British evidence that shows that most children who commit crimes grow out of it. Therefore, rather than saddling a child who has done something unlawful with a criminal record which follows them like a shadow when making job, school and college applications, point-of arrest diversion schemes enable the children to learn from their mistakes, whilst having the chance to reach their potential. As with all interventions, these schemes have their shortcomings. Most notably, there is evidence that Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic young people are less likely to be offered diversion than White young people, an issue that will hopefully be picked up in David Lammy’s review on race and criminal justice. Nonetheless, the evidence is clear that youth diversion schemes are better for the young people, and better at keeping everyone in society safer.

However, this point seems to be being missed. Predictably, the media discussion of the Charlie Taylor review focused solely on custody and his proposals for secure schools. Whilst it is of obvious public interest how we incarcerate children, this attention overlooks the essential point that we do better when we respond effectively at the start of young people’s criminal careers, rather than worrying about their prison conditions when we have failed them. Perhaps more disappointing was that the government response also seemed to miss this, and other, crucial points raised by Taylor.

One response is to vent disappointment. Others have written of their frustration that a radical vision of youth justice has been tempered by a response much more managerial and incrementalist in tone. But, perhaps, it’s time to recognise that we can’t wait for Whitehall to deliver the youth justice reforms we need. Instead, it is to the grassroots, youth offending teams and local agencies, and those that influence them like Police and Crime Commissioners and local authorities, that we should be making the case for investment in diversion. It is to them we should turn for support for other schemes such as a more problem-solving approach in youth court. Perhaps we now need to look for solutions at local level, instead of looking to Whitehall.

Sober analysis suggests many changes don’t need legislation or a new white paper, they are things that can and do happen now. If we can continue to reduce demand on the whole formal justice system, incarceration becomes a much smaller problem. That doesn’t just benefit the children, it’s in the interests of all of us. It helps to create a justice system which works for everyone.