Youth justice system has been crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic, report finds

Wed 23 September, 2020
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The State of Youth Justice – a comprehensive analysis of the youth justice system by an academic from the University of Bedfordshire, published today by the National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) – found that the Covid-19 pandemic has had serious consequences for children in prison, including a significantly reduced time for education as well as social interactions with the outside world.

  • Children in prison have seen reduced time for education and social interactions due to the pandemic
  • Almost 1 in 3 children arrested for a notifiable offence in 2019 was recorded as being black or from a minority ethnic group
  • Continued reductions in the criminalisation of children, with significant decline in the number of females entering the system

Dr Tim BatemanThe report, authored by Dr Tim Bateman, Reader in Youth Justice at the University of Bedfordshire, revealed that the provision of education to children in Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) has been significantly reduced since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The study highlighted that in two of the three YOIs inspected in England and Wales following the onset of the pandemic, children’s educational activities were limited to worksheets in their cells, while the third establishment was able to provide just two hours face-to-face education on school days.

In addition, the time children spent out of cell varied from three hours a day to just 40 minutes. Contact with the outside world has been curtailed, with the consequence that children no longer have any face-to-face interaction with families or friends, nor visits from social workers, YOI staff or lawyers.

The report also highlights evidence of continued reductions in the criminalisation of children alongside some less welcome developments. For example, there has been a remarkable decline in the number of females entering the youth justice system. Girl’s detected indictable offending fell by an astonishing 95% between 1992 and 2018. By contrast, there are disconcerting indicators of differential treatment of young people from different ethnic groups.

Wider societal inequalities help explain that almost one in three children arrested for a notifiable offence in 2019 was recorded as being black or from a minority ethnic group. However, wider inequalities do not tell the whole story. In 2019, black people were subject to stop and search at almost ten times the rate for the white population. Differential police practice in this regard further undermines the trust that black children have in authority, reinforcing perceptions that criminal justice agencies discriminate against them. Black children who enter the system are also more likely to receive harsher levels of punishment.

Black children are more likely to experience longer sentences of imprisonment. While in May 2005 minority ethnic children accounted for one quarter of those in custody, by the same month in 2019, that proportion had risen to 51%. Between 2005 and 2019, the white population of the secure estate had declined by 80%; the equivalent reduction for BAME children was just 38%. The evidence presented in the report supports the arguments of activists who have been prominent in campaigning for social changes that help make our system of justice fairer for black people and other ethnic minorities.

Dr Tim Bateman, based at the University of Bedfordshire’s Institute of Applied Social Research, said: “Over the last decade, there have been some remarkable changes in the youth justice system, leading to lower levels of criminalisation of children and encouraging reductions in the extent of child imprisonment. But there remains a considerable gap between the rhetoric of child first and ensuring that a child first philosophy and practice is fully embedded in the treatment of children in conflict with the law.

“The growing over-representation of minority ethnic children, particularly at the higher end of the system, is nothing short of a disgrace and the treatment of children in custody is totally unacceptable. The State of Youth Justice 2020 attempts to present a balanced view of where we are now, clarifying where there have been improvements and highlighting where, from the perspective of the National Association for Youth Justice, further change is urgently required.”

The full report is available on the NAYJ website: https://thenayj.org.uk/campaigns-and-publications/

The report is published at a time when a number of developments are putting pressure on the youth justice system, and the children subject to it. However, contrary to public perceptions that crime is rising, youth crime has fallen in the recent period. Physical violence between children in schools has, for instance, declined in recent years, as has other forms of risk taking behaviour such as using alcohol and drugs. The evidence calls into question some of the measures proposed by government in the recently published White Paper on Sentencing Reform, such as proposals that would expand the powers of courts to impose curfews on children for up to 20 hours a day and see the length of custodial sentences rise.

The State of Youth Justice report considers the extent to which the youth justice system is operating according to a child first approach as espoused by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) for England and Wales. The child first approach reinforces, and provides a retrospective justification of, an increased use of measures to divert children from the criminal justice system and minimise the use of prison diversionary, together with other shifts in the treatment of children consistent with such a philosophy. Keith Fraser, Chair of YJB, said:

As ever, this report from the NAYJ offers a wealth of analysis and challenge. Recognition of the significance of the YJB’s adoption of the Child First principle is welcomed as is the encouragement for the YJB and others to do more to fulfil the Child First aspiration.

Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ), said: "This timely report provides a comprehensive analysis of the current state of youth justice, with important historical context, and poses important questions about where we go from here. Punitive soundings from the Sentencing White Paper signal uncomfortable challenges to the Youth Justice Board's 'child first' approach, and fails to address how racial disparity at each stage of the criminal justice system will be tackled.  Youth justice is at a critical juncture; this report serves as a warning to learn from the recent past, and guard against the disastrous and long-lasting impact that a 'tough on crime' stance can bring about for children and young people.”

The National Association for Youth Justice is hosting an online event at 10am on 20th October 2020, during which Dr Tim Bateman will discuss the report with YJB’s Keith Fraser and Andy Peaden from the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers. The event is free to attend, with further details available on the NAYJ website: https://thenayj.org.uk/events

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