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Pity about the reality

Britain has the highest prison population in Europe. Angela Neustatter reports on the Blair legacy for youth justice.

Gordon Brown, becoming Prime Minister, has inherited a disgraceful situation with the numbers of young people in prison higher than when the Labour government came to power. We should remember he was not conspicuous protesting for youth justice policies while in that government. But he has made an important and potentially humane move in putting responsibility for youth justice into the new Ministry for Schools and Children under Beverley Hughes.

In doing this he has won the approval of Paul Cavadino, Chief Executive of Nacro, and a man who has been a harsh critic of many of our youth justice policies and the fact that we imprison more children and young people than any comparable European country. He says:

“Putting responsibility for young offenders alongside general responsibility for children makes complete sense and is something we have long campaigned for.

“This change makes it more likely that young offenders will be treated as children first and offenders second. It increases the prospects for constructive policies towards young offenders which would be more effective in reducing youth crime.”

Brown will be closely watched to see if he actually achieves this. Tony Blair was seen to have failed badly in this area. He saw key people from the youth justice arena leave in disgust. Notably Rod Morgan, passionate and admired chairman of the Youth Justice Board who resigned at the beginning of this year, fiercely critical of a “twenty-six percent increase in the number of children and young people being drawn into the system”. And of the way young criminals are spuriously glamorised by the vilification of them.

Rob Allen, a founder member of the YJB and author of an assessment of this legacy (1) adds his voice: “I joined the YJB to achieve positive change and with great hopes that we could achieve badly needed transformation in the treatment of child prisoners. That has not happened, but if more radical and bolder steps had been taken we just might have been transformational.” Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies goes further: “Youth justice policy has gone up a dead end over the past few years.”

Even Cherie Blair, as an ambassador for the Howard League for Penal Reform, voiced criticism of what happened under her husband.

So what went wrong? Reforming youth justice was a top priority for New Labour. The year after Blair became Prime Minister his government brought in the Crime and Disorder Act (1998) with many new ideas and initiatives for keeping young people out of prison, and making what goes on in custody far more rehabilitative. Most significantly they created a juvenile estate entirely separate from the adult estate for 15-17 year-olds with regimes intended to recognise that they are children and to deliver high levels of education and purposeful activities.

Yet Blair's legacy when he departed this summer was an estimated 70,000 school age children entering the youth justice system each year. At any one time 11,000 young people – of which 3000 are children – in prison. While the number of young women sentenced has doubled in the past decade. And young violent crime is up with more than 60% of boys in the lowest income families saying they carry a knife.

Of course neither Blair, nor any government, can be held directly responsible for the fact that young people choose a criminal route. But there are now very well known risk factors absolutely correlating with deprivation and poverty that are the lot of the overwhelming majority of young offenders. Hence the avowed determination that at least young offender institutions should offer a real chance of rehabilitation with exercise, education and activities occupying a large part of each day, seemed a very encouraging step. Pity about the reality. The situation now is that 55% of male and 28% of female young prisoners spend more than 19 hours a day in their cells. And this when the Prison Reform Trust talks of more than 90% of young offenders having at least one serious health problem. As we have seen in too many cases recently this can mean suicide attempts and prisoners succeeding in killing themselves.

We were cheered back in those days to hear Blair tackling this issue having seen a rise in young imprisoned under Michael Howard with his declaration that ‘prison works'. He couldn't have been more wrong, of course. Prison where young people, who have more often than not endured the worst of life circumstances and have a disproportionately high level of mental health problems, are locked up, fails dismally. Far from emerging back into society rehabilitated and willing to live by society's rules, re-conviciton rates have climbed so that they now average 82% for under 18-year-olds and 78% for 18 – 20 year-olds.

But whatever the government's early rhetoric it turned from addressing all this and took what was seen by many as a populist line in talking tough about how young offenders should be treated. As Will Hyams at the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) where they have a five-year strategy campaigning for no children to be imprisoned, and an overhaul of the conditions for young offenders (18 – 21years), puts it: “prisons are awash with record numbers of teenagers and young adult men in their early twenties.”

What's more although New Labour may have talked the reformist talk, they did not walk the walk. The age of criminal responsibility was reduced to age 10 (it is 14 in all comparable European countries). Children are now imprisoned for relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting that used not to bring a custodial sentence, and Hyams argues police targets mean young people are picked up more readily and for more minor offences than before. Zoe Smith, at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies sums up: “It is striking that the government is committed to the criminalising of children and young people despite all the evidence that it does not work.”

But perhaps the most shocking part of the Blair legacy is the inaction of the government and its willingness to see children and young people grappling with a disproportionately high level of mental health problems – psychosis, manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, and multiple substance misuse problems locked up in institutions not equipped to deal with mental health care.

So it is not surprising that too many fail to cope when put into institutions, often miles from home and ‘corporately orphaned' in Allen's words. Rates of self-harm have risen in the past decade and the lonely horror of 177 self-inflicted deaths by young people in prison in the past decade should have sounded the alarm. Most particularly that of Adam Rickwood, 14, who hung himself in a secure training centre – the youngest child to die in penal custody in 25 years. It is certainly shocking to Anne Owers, HM Inspector of Prisons: “I am particularly concerned about the number of young people with mental illness who end up in prison because of lack of provision outside.”

So Blair's youth justice legacy has been celebrated by few, although Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, has praise for the fact that Blair has met his promise to halve the time from arrest to sentencing for young offenders. While Allen says some good things happened while he was in power, he believes the community ISSP (Intensive Surveillance and Supervision Order) which demands 25 hours attendance a week from convicted youth came with the right intentions. And he says: “The setting up of YOTS (Youth Offending Teams) with their multi-disciplinary approach has been constructive. There, too, are some good initiatives to be found in YOIs but far, far from enough.”

But now the drive is on by campaigners to get the new Prime Minister to invest far more into preventative initiatives and well-resourced, imaginative sentences in the community. Nikki Crane, former Arts Council project director of activities with young at risk and already offending, says: “Around the country there are extraordinary projects using the arts and imaginative education and skills training to engage young people either before they offend, or when they are on the criminal trajectory already and through these some youngsters do choose to change their criminal behaviour.”

Last year Smart Justice for Young People was set up, campaigning for more alternatives to prison and for initiatives that tackle the causes of young people's crimes. On their website (2) they describe how a range of projects do this.

Community sentences are generally agreed to need far more resourcing, but Allen's conviction goes further. He wants to see youth justice taken into the DSCF where the guiding principle is Every Child Matters and the focus would be on education, social well-being, emotional health. And where the possibility of early preventative work being done within families and schools is far greater.

A leader who does this will need to have the calibre and conviction to stand up to a public hooked into the idea of being tough on young criminals, to ask them to trust that ultimately they will have a better society if we can find a more creative way than locking up ever more of our burgeoning generations. Is Gordon Brown that leader?

(1) Debating Youth Justice: From Punishment to Problem Solving? Published by the Crime and Society Foundation online

(2) www.crimeandsociety.org.uk, www.smartjustice.org