this aspect of Welsh youth justice practice that could potentially offer some valuable lessons for youth justice practice in England and further afield

Expert Voice: Aaron Brown on youth diversion in Wales

Posted on 16 Apr in

Q1. Bureau is the youth diversion approach most widely used in Wales. What are the benefits of working with children in this way?

Following on from the development by local criminal justice agencies and partners of the original Swansea Bureau Model of Youth Justice in 2009 (Charles and Haines, 2010, Haines et al. 2013, Smith, 2014, Haines and Case, 2015), versions of the Bureau have subsequently extended to many other parts of Wales. Three versions of the Bureau currently in operation in Wales form the focus of my doctoral research and drawing upon these findings (as well as previous research) their workings can be understood to benefit children for the following key reasons:

As a pre-court diversionary mechanism, the Bureau as a core aim seeks to divert children who have committed a low-level offence away from the formal Youth Justice System (YJS); in the process, mitigating the possibility of a young person accruing stigma, a label and a criminal record that can detrimentally impact on their future life trajectory and act to shut down avenues to education and employment:

“Why should a child of 14 have a criminal record which is going to affect them for the rest of their life, when steps can be taken and things can be done to prevent and put them on the right track, if they’ve gone off on the wrong track?” Bureau Police Officer

Significantly however, the Bureau seeks not only to divert children ‘away from’ the formal YJS, but – where necessary (and dependent on the needs of the individual child) – also aims to divert them into ‘positive’ and ‘appropriate’ based interventions, designed to offer support, as well as promote pro-social behaviour and bring about reductions in re-offending. Consequently, it can be argued that the Bureau is especially beneficial to children because it is fundamentally holistic and encompasses what could be termed ‘dual-diversion’, in that it embraces both ‘away’ (e.g. from the criminogenic formal YJS) and ‘into’ (e.g. support where appropriate) facets of the diversionary process:

“There’s getting the young people who make that one-off mistake, who are never going to do it again, and they won’t have to pay for it for the rest of their lives. And it’s catching those ones who actually are on a path to a criminal career, because of no support or whatever else is going on, and chucking that support at them then, rather than waiting for them to do something else. They are my two prongs for the Bureau.” Bureau Practitioner

Additionally, the Bureau in its ‘operational structure’ is also intentionally child-centric and aims to ‘include’ rather than ‘exclude’ children’s contributions within its proceedings. The extant youth justice literature reinforces the fact that all too often children in conflict with the law have had their opinions marginalised and their rights demoted; this in spite of the fact that they are the very individuals most intimately impacted by youth justice processes and therefore should have primacy attached to their views (see Hart and Thompson, 2009, Creaney, 2014, Case and Haines, 2015 and more broadly James and Prout, 1990 and the ‘new sociology of childhood’). Refreshingly, more than being a convenient model of diversion, the Bureau intentionally embodies Article 12 of the UNCRC (1989) into its practice, reinforcing through meaningful participation opportunities for children to talk not only about why crimes were committed, but also how they are finding school and family life, and what interventions or support (if any) may assist them moving forward.

The Bureau also makes a genuine effort not to disenfranchise parents and carers or commandeer their role as the authentic custodians of their children – something which has not always been the case in youth justice (Arthur, 2005). The purposefully extended rather than truncated Bureau format (the process usually takes place over a fortnight) works to the advantage of parents and carers. Here, rather than parents and carers being pushed to the fringes as their child is expedited through the system, the structure of the Bureau allows parents and carers the time and space to re-establish dialogue with their child and recover parental influence. During the process they are also given opportunities to accompany their child to Bureau meetings and contribute to proceedings.

Lastly, the Bureau benefits from being underpinned by strong multi-agency partnerships that are positioned around the best interests of the child. Key stakeholders, such as the Youth Offending Service and Police, appear genuinely invested in pre-court diversion and the Bureau and are committed to working together to keep children out of the formal YJS.

Q2. Is there any evidence currently available as to the effectiveness of the Bureau?

There has been some pre LASPOA (2012) academic research into the Bureau operating in specifically Swansea (see Haines et al. 2013) which has highlighted its potential. It identified that numbers of First Time Entrants (FTEs) fell substantially in the years following on from its launch; from 289 in 2008/ 2009 to 86 in 2011/12 – a percentage decrease of 70 per cent over the period. Analysis also established in relation to Swansea Bureau decision-making/outcomes (for the period 2009/10 to 2011/12) that the Non-Criminal Disposal (NCD: the diversionary outcome developed by Swansea locally) was administered to children more frequently than either Reprimands, Final Warnings or Prosecution. Lastly, the research determined that for the two years that data was available (2009/10 to 2010/11) reconviction rates for Non-Criminal Disposals were lower than for Reprimands, Final Warnings or Prosecution.

The three Bureau areas my doctoral research examines have similarly seen significant reductions in numbers of FTEs coincide with each of the Bureaux becoming operational. Specifically, in each area – from Bureau conception to the year ending March 2017 – numbers of FTEs have fallen by 79 per cent, 83 per cent and 92 per cent respectively. Moreover, preliminary analysis of Bureau outcomes in each of the three areas – inclusive of the last two years – reveal that the Youth Restorative Disposal (the equivalent to the NCD following on from the introduction of LASPOA) has been administered more frequently than either Youth Cautions or Youth Conditional Cautions, illustrating a genuine commitment to divert wherever possible.

Q3. Are there any ‘gaps in knowledge’ regarding the workings of the Bureau?

The existing academic research in relation to Welsh Bureaux has described its impact as “promising” (Haines et. al. 2013).

However, arguably most academic research into Welsh Bureaux has thus far focused on ‘stakeholder’ (e.g. Youth Offending Service practitioners, Police, etc.) perceptions of its workings. As such, there is currently a paucity of views from children themselves as to how they understand and perceive the workings of Welsh Bureaux. The doctoral research I am undertaking seeks to address this ‘gap in knowledge’ by actively engaging with children who participate in the Bureau process. Here, greater recognition of their opinions will further strengthen the ‘process and practices’ that underpin Bureau youth diversion and, in the process, also act to reinforce Wales’ post devolution emphasis on promoting children’s rights and entitlements.

It is also the case that existing academic research concerning Welsh Bureaux has predominately focused on a single geographical location (e.g. Swansea). Although helpful, there is now a need to better understand how Bureau youth diversion differs according to location. Here, the doctoral research undertaken seeks to address this shortcoming through examining their practice across a number of locations. Through addressing these ‘gaps in knowledge’ a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of Bureau youth diversion can be achieved.

Q4. What difference has LASPOA (2012) made to the Bureau process?

The implementation of LASPOA (2012) has created a number of impacts on the functioning of Welsh Bureaux. For example, pre LASPOA Bureau outcomes included the Non-Criminal Disposal (or equivalent disposal), Reprimand and Final Warning, but have now been replaced with the Youth Restorative Disposal (or equivalent disposal), Youth Caution and Youth Conditional Caution. Equally, post LASPOA, Bureau eligibility has been extended beyond simply FTEs – meaning that rather than simply progressing in a linear fashion up the escalator of disposals as was previously the case, a child can now go ‘up or down’ or go ‘backwards from court’ to the Bureau. Widening the eligibility criteria does mean that Welsh Bureaux now potentially encounter children with more complex needs and offending histories. However, this does not diminish the overall value of the model but rather offers a wider spectrum of children the opportunity to make positive changes.

Q5. How far is Bureau a result of the ‘dragonisation of youth justice’ and are there lessons to be learnt for England?

To provide context, following Welsh devolution, there has been an express commitment from Welsh policymakers to enact a robust ‘rights and entitlements’ agenda in respect of all children and young people. Acting as a cornerstone for Wales’ commitment to children’s rights has been the UNCRC (1989; which has been supplemented and reinforced by the creation of the first Children’s Commissioner, as well as key policy milestones such as Extending Entitlement, 2002 and Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011).

Significantly, this strategic emphasis has also arguably influenced youth justice matters (even though it currently does not constitute a devolved area) in what has been termed the “dragonisation of youth justice” (Haines, 2009, Drakeford, 2010, Muncie, 2011). Specific youth justice policy and strategy that operate in Wales, including The All Wales Youth Offending Strategy (2004) and Children and Young People First (2014) generally promote the idea that children who come into contact with the YJS should always be understood as “children and young people first!”

Pragmatically, this has meant that children who come into contact with the YJS are not deemed ‘underserving of rights’ or ‘unworthy of rehabilitation’, but instead, are seen for what they are: ‘children first and foremost’. Rather than supporting punitive approaches, instead diversion is recognised by the Welsh Government as being critically important. Such a position, in turn, reinforces the emphasis and operational reality of the Bureau.

Although it would be naive to suggest that the Welsh approach to youth justice is entirely absent of challenges or areas of weakness, there is no doubt that its emphasis on championing the centrality of children’s rights as a clear and coherent foundation for youth justice practice (including youth diversion) has been and continues to be both positive and progressive. As such, it is this aspect of Welsh youth justice practice that could potentially offer some valuable lessons for youth justice practice in England and further afield.


Aaron Brown Aaron Brown has a BA (Hons) in Theology from the University of Exeter, an MA in Applied Criminal Justice and Criminology from Swansea University and is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Prior to undertaking his PhD studies he worked for a number of MPs within the House of Commons, UK Parliament. His ESRC funded PhD research examines the Bureau Model, a youth diversionary scheme functioning in Wales.

Email:  Twitter: @brownaaronuk



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