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David Burrowes: An accountable youth justice system

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. Given the state of opinion polls you may well be asking the question, what could the youth justice system look like under a Conservative Government?

Over the last eighteen months I have been forming and developing our policy plans. Whilst I have been able to lean on my own 12 years as a practitioner in the youth justice system, I have valued hearing from a wide range of organisations and individuals, seeking views on both successes and failures within the youth justice system.

In fact, just a week ago along with colleagues from the Home Affairs and Children, Schools and Families teams we held a youth crime and justice seminar with over 60 representatives of the youth justice network. I hope a message from that meeting and this is that real improvement and change often comes along way down the track before the formal justice system picks up the pieces of lives in need of early intervention.

I welcome the current review of the Youth Justice Board being co-led by Dame Sue Street. I would urge you all to engage with this review which needs to be independent and robust for its recommendations to have lasting value. The YJB needs to meet the challenge set this week by David Cameron of his three guiding principles of decentralisation, transparency and accountability.


Whatever the outcome of the review, there is a need for systemic changes to the youth justice system.

We need a rebalance in favour of early intervention and prevention. Custody costs currently account for approximately two-thirds of the Youth Justice Board's budget. A vast amount when you think of all the preventative work the YJB champions. Custody will always be necessary within the youth justice system to address the serious and recurrent offending of a minority of offenders. But it carries a high financial and social cost, with at least three quarters of young offenders re-offending within one year.

I know that Frances highlighted the success of the work of YOTs yesterday. I also recognise that there have been improvements in relation to YOTs over the years. However, we need to do more to unburden them of the current levels of bureaucracy they face on a day to day basis. Having met with YOT practitioners, I know how much time has to be spent on paperwork and in front of a computer. All valuable time which could otherwise be spent with the young people they are trying to help.

I am also concerned by all the hours spent keeping track of all the funding streams available for different YOT interventions. I am keen to find ways we could streamline these funding avenues to free up staff time and also to provide the security of knowing that a YOT can continue to provide a particular intervention for an adequate length of time.


I strongly believe that we must do more to ensure custody has a purpose beyond incarceration and reduces the risk of re-offending. How you might ask?

We are looking to see how our policy of prison and rehabilitation trusts - with an incentive to rehabilitate and resettle - can be applied in the youth justice system.

A Conservative Government will do more to encourage the private and voluntary sector to play a greater role in the youth justice system. We are interested in the role this sector can play in supporting local partnerships in areas such as education and skills training. The example of organisations such as NACRO's Milestone's project at Portland YOI which provides young offenders with a mentor to help them build a positive future is just one way in which this could happen.

Deeply worrying levels of literacy and numeracy amongst young offenders must be addressed.  My colleague Michael Gove's drive to improve numeracy and literacy in our schools should be matched by a similar drive in the youth custody estate.

Illiteracy is a key problem in the resettlement of young offenders, indeed amongst all offenders. The work which National Grid does with young offenders - such as training them to be gas engineers - requires them to be able to gain a driving licence. But, if they can't read, they can't take the driving theory test. If they can't take the theory test they can't take their practical test and they can't get the job. Getting literacy right is so important and something I want us to address head on.

We also need to recognise speech, language and communication needs which affect at least 60% of young people entering the youth justice system. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, finishing it's passage through the House this week, has made some progress in terms of assessments but the reality on the ground is of too little speech and language therapy and educational psychology available in the custodial estate.


Custodial sentencing does need reform. We have heard from many people that Detention and Training Orders are often too short to achieve anything useful whilst in custody. Not least, re-offending can't be tackled.

I have previously spoken of less offenders on DTOs but for a longer period of sentence - a so called 'less for longer' approach. By increasing the minimum length of the DTO to 12 months all those sentenced to custody would spend at least 6 months inside and 6 months training. It basically gives a good chance of rehabilitation and resettlement. Of course it would need to be combined with more robust community sentences so that some of those who might previously have been given a shorter DTO could be adequately sentenced in the community. The introduction later this month of Youth Rehabilitation Orders (YROs) as part of the Scaled Approach to Youth Justice could pave the way for this providing Magistrates with greater options for sentencing in the community.

I know from practitioners in the YJS that one of the problems has been constant legislative changes and tinkering with the system. We need to give the YROs time to bed in.

The problem that Magistrates and YOT managers tell me about is that money is often not available locally to fund the requirements of the sentence. The menu of sentencing options for rehabilitation may be very worthy but without the cash to pay for them, the alternatives to custody will not work and will not be used. Intensive fostering pilots are showing very positive results in the resettlement of young offenders. But, intensive supervision of this kind is not universally available due to the pressures on finance.

Underlying the need for change -rebalancing the system in favour of prevention and early intervention; reforming custody and encouraging greater responsibility and joint working amongst local services - should be three key assumptions.

We need a youth justice system that is separate, local and accountable.

First separate. For many years, we were able to achieve separation between the youth and adult justice systems. This can be dated back 100 years ago to the establishment of youth courts under the Children Act. Until 1909, young people had no legal representation in court. Only an adult's account of what happened was required by Magistrates in determining a sentence. However, in establishing youth courts, the means to try young people in a dedicated environment was provided. Over recent years, this separation has been weakened as a result of pressures on court time and budgets. The non-exclusive use of youth days in courts has slowly crept in.

In 2009, our youth justice system has increasingly diluted the distinction between adult and youth offenders. Not only can we see this in sentencing and the courts system, but our custodial estate also highlights this point. With the Prison Service managing a significant proportion of the youth custodial estate, the line between youth and adult custodial settings gets blurred.

I will be looking at how by outsourcing the provision of youth custody we can achieve a truly separate youth custodial estate. There is a need to look at different providers, both public and private. We need to be more creative and ambitious when it comes to placements for young people. For example, if the custody threshold is reached, we need to see how we could make use of the power available in statute but never used by the YJB to place a young offender in an alternative institution to a YOI. By doing this, I believe the potential for more localised secure and non secure residential solutions would be opened up. We need to seriously consider proposals such as the Young Offenders Academy in East London or in other regions. The new Heron Wing at Feltham which was opened last week is particularly interesting. Each young offender on the Wing has a Resettlement Broker whose job it is to ensure that local services and agencies are ready and waiting to work together for the young person when they are released. The Resettlement Broker is paid by results. Incentivised to resettle the young person and see an end to their offending. The attractiveness of the Heron Wing is not just the focus upon resettlement but the challenge to reduce reoffending and reinvest savings in prevention. I will be keeping a close eye on this project to see if it produces results which could be repeated in other parts of the country.


Second we need local youth justice. Locality is significant in terms of court locations, community and custodial sentencing, working with victims, involving volunteers as well as prevention and early intervention. For example, distance has a significant impact on a young offender in custody. This makes the chance of maintaining relationships with family and others needed when they are released that much harder.

As well as a need for separate youth courts, I am looking at how youth courts can revert back to being locally based. There has been an increasing move away from local youth courts to a much more centralised system. However, the result is that often young offenders are tried and sentenced in courts outside their town, borough and in some cases, their county.

Locally based courts are essential to ensuring that a young offender recognises the consequences of the offence they have committed. Victims and witnesses should be able to have easy access to justice in their own locality. I am looking at ways in which courts can be brought back into the heart of the community. I believe this will enable greater local ownership of the youth justice system.

A secure dock is not required for a first appearance at court except in the most serious of cases. Court rooms can effectively be set up anywhere. I was particularly interested by the idea mooted recently by Magistrates of a 'Justice Bus'. A mobile court room, it could travel around different communities and provide a venue for initial court hearings, guaranteeing a separate youth court setting.

We are also looking at how to make more use of Referral Orders. A local justice solution with some relative success, they have seen re-offending rates of just 40% compared to the rate of over 70% amongst those released from custody. Whilst this re-offending rate may be predicated by the fact Referral orders are used for first time convictions, we still need to look at how we can make better use of them.

We need to look to lessons learnt from other jurisdictions. In Scotland more attention is paid at the first hearing stage to involving family and care interventions. A more localised court setting such as at local council buildings could help bring in other childrens services at the crucial stage when a young person first enters the formal youth justice system.

I have been impressed by the recent findings from Northern Ireland. In their youth justice system, young people attend a restorative justice conference, to which the victim is always invited. Over 70% of victims want to attend these meetings and the great majority - around 80% - express themselves satisfied afterwards. I heard recently from a conference co-ordinator, who told me first hand about the experience of one victim's family she had worked with. They used the restorative justice process to really confront a young offender with the impact a violent attack had had on their whole family, all of whom had a chance to contribute. Whereas so often these wider victims of crime are not heard or acknowledged and have no opportunity to move forward after a crime, Restorative Justice provides an answer. The high involvement and satisfaction of victims is particularly marked given the present lack of involvement of victims in referral panels.

Finally, we need an accountable youth justice system. Lack of local accountability undermines the youth justice system. I know the YJB has challenged local authorities with information about the numbers of their young people in custody. With the Youth Justice Board currently footing the custody bill, the Local Authority has no direct responsibility for young people in custody. We see the problem classically in the care budget where a perverse incentive could arise for a child in care to be off the Local Authorities budget once they are into custody. Leeds is one city highlighted by Frances yesterday for working in partnership with local associations in preventing youth crime. Leeds has seen 20 less young offenders in custody over the last year which could be further incentivised by a devolved budget. YJB average weighted figures would equate this saving to approximately £1.4 million. In North Hampshire, custody panels have see a 42% reduction into custody. How much better it would be to give bite to such work with financial rewards. We are keen to look at how through devolved budgets, we can reward successful localities, whether it be a local authority or Children's Trust or regional consortium, by diverting some of this saving back to the local area to be spent on further prevention and intervention work.

In terms of implementing devolved budgets, I am particularly interested in a phased implementation in suitable areas of the country with budgets, at lease initially, devolved on a notional basis with refund and recharge mechanisms.

Linked to accountability is the need for information. At a time of increasing transparency and easier access to information, the criminal justice system is too closed and insular. Apart from at a trial victims are rarely seen in youth courts and are often kept in the dark about the progress of cases from charge to the end of a sentence. The public have little idea what goes on in their local courts. Yet, for the public to have confidence in the youth justice system, particularly community penalties, they need to be kept better informed. Public confidence is determined by a perception of the effectiveness of the national Criminal Justice System rather than any real understanding of the quality of the local justice system.

The perception in the media and debate on youth crime is to get young offenders 'out of sight, out of mind'. However, there are too many wasted lives and collateral damage to victims and communities to be a hidden issue. A more separate, local and accountable youth justice system would drive the change our communities and young people desperately need.

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