England & Wales Communities and society , Education and children's services , Welfare and equalities

Youth Justice – a review of recent developments


This briefing seeks to provide an overview of developments in the youth justice sector over the last 12 months and what might come next. This includes the recently published sentencing white paper, which is the subject of a separate and more detailed briefing: Sentencing White Paper: youth justice and criminal records checks. All the figures and analysis in this briefing covers both England and Wales.


In July, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) published a framework for youth offending teams (YOTs) to consider when developing plans for transitioning towards recovery in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic – a condition of the Youth Justice Grant for 2020-21. (A youth offending team (YOT) is a multi-agency team that is coordinated by a local authority and overseen by the Youth Justice Board, a non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). YOTs supervise young people who have been ordered by the court to serve sentences in the community or in the secure estate.)

YJB recognises that local authorities and agencies will be at different stages of development, the current circumstances remain changeable and the situation will be different in Wales given the Welsh Government’s devolved responsibilities over public health and other public services.

Youth Justice Funding

The Government’s ring-fenced grant administered by the YJB to support the work of YOTs has reduced by more than half since 2011: from £145 million in 2010-11 to £71.6m in 2019-20 (latest published). Though varying by YOT, the grant now accounts for around 28% of YOT funding, down from 35% ten years ago. The rest is provided by local authorities and their partners including the probation service, police and health: funding from these other sources was £182 million in 2018-19 (the latest data available) a 33% reduction between 2010-11 and 2018-19; funding from local authorities represents some 49% of all YOT funding (in 2018-19), but has fallen by 26% over the same period. The funding distribution for 2019-20 (latest available) can be found here.

Key figures and trends

The statistics below are drawn from Youth justice annual statistics for 2018 to 2019 for England and Wales published in January 2020. They are for the year to March 2019, and are the latest available:

Youth crime continues to fall:

  • The number of first time entrants into the youth justice system has fallen by 85% since March 2009, with an 18% fall in 2018-19. There were 11,900 first time entrants in 2018-19.
  • The number of children who received a caution or sentence has fallen by 83% over the last ten years, with a 19% fall in 2018-19. The largest year-on-year decrease since March 2013. 21,700 children were cautioned or sentenced in 2018-19.
  • There was a 1% decrease in knife and offensive weapon offences compared with the previous year (2017-18) after four year-on-year increases.
  • The number of proven offences committed continued to fall to around 58,900, 76% lower than 2008-09, with a 16% fall in the latest year, except robbery offences, which increased by 5%.
  • The average number of children in custody at any one time during 2018-19 fell by 4% to just fewer than 860. However the number from a Black background increased by 6% and they now account for over a quarter (28%) of the youth custody population, compared to 15% ten years ago.
  • The reoffending rate decreased by 2.5 percentage points, although it remains higher than ten years ago (when it was 37.1%, now 38.4%).


  • The number of children held in custody on remand increased by 12% and accounted for 28% of all children in custody, the largest proportion over the last ten years. Two-thirds who were remanded did not subsequently receive a custodial sentence, a three percentage point increase from the previous year.
  • Both the number of restrictive physical interventions and self-harm incidents in custody increased by 16% and 3% respectively – the highest numbers in the last five years.
  • The average of 4.05 re-offences per re-offender is the highest frequency rate seen in the last ten years.

State of Youth Justice 2020

The National Association for Youth Justice has published its latest overview of trends and developments: The state of youth justice 2020 An overview of trends and developments; the last time they did this was three years ago. Through its 152 pages, the report’s author Dr Tim Bateman assesses whether we have and to what extent we are falling short of a ‘child first’ youth justice system as advocated for by the YJB in the last few years.

Racial disproportionality

The issue of racial disproportionality has been thrown into the spotlight. The 2017 Lammy Review highlighted that disproportionality within the youth justice system was his biggest concern. Whilst the total number of young offenders has significantly decreased since the peak seen in 2007, the number of BAME children in the justice system has not decreased at the same rate and now make up half of the custodial population and over a quarter (27%) of those who receive a caution or conviction, compared to only representing 18% of the general population.

In August YJB updated their ‘disproportionality journey of the child’ analysis exploring the issue of racial disparity and how it affects children in their early years, in education and within the youth justice system as well as the ethnic composition of the YOT workforce. The key highlights are:

  • Black children are over four times more likely to be arrested than white children, who are more likely to get a caution and avoid going to court.
  • In 2019, black children committed over a quarter (27%) of knife and offensive weapon offences resulting in a caution or sentence. White children committed 61% of all serious offences.
  • BAME children are nearly two times as likely, to receive custodial outcomes than white children and make up half of all children in-custody and are even more over-represented among those in custody while on remand (57%).
  • White children had the highest rate of reoffences at 4.22. Asian children had a rate of 3.46, black children had a rate of 3.62 and children from other backgrounds had a rate of 3.04.

Lammy report and the government’s response

In February the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) published an update on the government’s progress in tackling racial disparities (Tackling racial disparity in the criminal justice system: 2020) including progress in response to the Lammy Review. Key areas of work being taken forward include:

  • The YJB are developing a research project exploring the trustworthiness of the youth justice system, and how current levels of trust from the ethnic minority communities can be improved.
  • Improving the data and exploring disproportionate outcomes and experiences for Gypsy, Roma, Traveller (GRT) children and Muslim children is planned for by the end of 2020.
  • Work is underway, led by the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit, to understand and explain the links between race disparity in the youth justice system and factors such as socio-economic circumstances, education and disproportionate arrest rates etc.
  • YJB is working with partners to develop an employment model that improves opportunities for BAME children including job readiness, mentoring, traineeships and apprenticeships.
  • YJB has supported Alliance of Sport ‘Levelling the Playing Field’ three year pilot programme aimed at using sport and physical activity to engage and improve health and life outcomes for BAME children at risk of entering or who are already involved in the justice system.
  • YJB has completed a project looking at how ‘stop and search’ is being applied to children and young people – the recommendations from which are being taken forward with the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
  • YJB is developing a pathfinder project on community resolutions and the racial disparities that exist within them.
  • MOJ are seeking to improve the diversity in the make-up of Youth Offender Panels

In addition according to the YJB‘s 2020-21 business plan (published subsequently) it is:

  • Analysing community sentences, how they may be better utilised and how this may impact on custody rates including by analysing offences committed by children in custody to better understand why they have been placed there and initiating research on pre-sentencing reports provided to courts and the discretion deployed at court.
  • YJB are planning to develop a pathfinder project to understand through a ‘child first’ lens the issues affecting over-represented groups of children.

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller children and young people

In June 2020, MoJ’s Race Disparity team published a briefing about Gypsy, Roma, Traveller (GRT) communities (Beyond Acronyms: Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the Criminal Justice System Guidance) providing information on the variety of GRT identities, related facts and signposts to further support and information. Alongside which MOJ has also published an effective practice guide to raise awareness of the needs and what might work in engaging and supporting GRT children in the youth justice system (Working with Gypsy, Roma, Traveller children and young people: Effective practice for Youth Offending Teams).

What are the needs of children in the justice system?

A large proportion of children who are supervised by YOTs exhibit a range of interdependent and interrelated ‘concerns’ covering: their wellbeing (e.g. physical and mental health, safety and wellbeing); how they relate to other people; social factors and issues at home (e.g. accommodation, parenting etc); and their own behaviours (e.g. substance misuse, attitudes to offending). This is shown in YJB data (Assessing the needs of sentenced children in the Youth Justice System – April 2018 – March 2019, published may 2020) showing that:

  • Seven out of ten had at least five of the 19 concerns such as safety and wellbeing, presenting a risk to others, substance misuse, speech, language and communication issues and mental health issues.
  • The number of concerns each child has increases with the severity of their sentence: 39% of those serving custodial sentences had 15-19 concerns present, compared with 11% of children who received first-tier sentences.
  • Greater proportions of BAME children have concerns about local issues, particularly those from a black background related to specific local tensions pressures or issues. Whereas a greater proportion of White children had mental health concerns.
  • Younger children (10-14 years) showed a greater proportion of speech, language and communication (80%) and education and learning (71%) concerns than older children (15-17) who showed a greater proportion of substance misuse concerns.
  • Boys had a greater proportion of concerns about local issues than girls (43% compared to 25%) whereas there was a greater proportion of mental health concerns for girls (81% compared with 69%).
  • Over a quarter (29%) were assessed as having a High or Very High Risk of Serious Harm, and over two fifths (42%) were assessed as having a High or Very High Risk to their Safety and Wellbeing. This increases as the severity of the sentence increased and is higher for children from a BAME background and in particular black children (where the figures are 44% and 55% respectively).

Inspections of Youth Offending Teams

There have been 41 inspections of the 152 YOTs under the new inspection framework introduced in April 2018. Of these, eighteen have been rated as ‘good’, fifteen as ‘requiring improvement’ and four as ‘inadequate’. There are just four YOTs rated as ‘excellent’: East Riding, Essex, Hertfordshire and Camden. A live table showing the inspections scores for each YOT that has been inspected can be found here.

HMI Probation’s 2019 Annual Report on inspection of youth offending services found that from the 26 inspections conducted during 2018 and 2019 that the most effective YOTs had a clear learning culture ensuring staff had opportunities to deliver, and the range of services offered were the greatest where there was investment in strong partnerships with key agencies. However, Inspectors found “huge variations in the quality service delivery”. In particular:

  • Significant variation in the way police and YOTs decide whether a child should receive an out-of-court disposal or be charged with an offence and dealt with by a youth court.
  • Planning for resettlement was found to be wanting and family input limited.
  • Too many children were found not to have suitable and sustainable access to education or training opportunities on release, which meant with time on their hands, some were committing offences during school hours or are at risk of being groomed or enticed into crime.

We can expect publication by the YJB of the key findings from the YOTs’ self-assessment audits against the new national standards (for children in the youth justice system) introduced early in 2019; these assessments were submitted to YJB in April, and moderated over the summer. The results will be used by YJB to advise ministers on how the standards are being adhered to and to inform future YJB priorities. No date has been announced, for publishing the overall results of these assessments.

Youth Violence

Knife Crime

In the2019 annual inspections report, HMI Probation revealed the preliminary results from a survey of the work that YOTs are doing to tackle knife crime. Almost 60% of respondents believed that knife crime is increasing in their area, with a quarter, mainly in major urban areas, assessing that it was ‘major’ problem and just over half (58%) believing it to be a ‘moderate’ problem. The same proportion believed it was increasing – more likely in YOTs facing a ‘moderate’ problem – and almost a third (30%) reported that knife crime levels were staying the same.

Three-quarters of YOTs had knife crime as a specific priority, with a greater majority (88%) providing knife crime interventions to the young people they work with. Eighty-five per cent reported that they supervise young people who have themselves been victims of knife crime. Few were employing or commissioning specialist workers (such as clinical psychologists or mentors) and only 29% had formally evaluated the impact of their programmes/interventions. The main obstacle to countering knife crime was considered to be insufficient and/or short-term funding. A further concern was a lack of guidance from central government on what is effective in working with knife crime perpetrators and those at risk, and difficulties in sharing information and intelligence with police, schools, local authorities and other partners.

A 2019 College of Policing briefing paper (Tackling knife crime) summarises the evidence on the factors associated with carrying knives, as well as strategies and interventions to tackle knife crime. It finds that people carry knives for different reasons (self-protection, to command respect and to use them) with evidence indicating that there is no statistically significant relationship between ethnicity and weapon carrying. Approaches such as problem-oriented policing, deterrence strategies which target high-risk offenders, and early preventative work aimed at supporting potentially ‘at-risk’ individuals are most likely to be effective. Public health approaches, involving multiple agencies to develop a range of interventions focusing on preventing the onset and progression of violence, as well as law enforcement activity directed at offenders, have been shown to have a positive impact.

An all-party parliamentary group (Securing a better future: The role of youth services in tackling knife crime) found a “strongly” negative association between youth centres closing and increasing knife crime – every decline in the number of youth centres is associated with an increase in knife crime. The vast majority of the 71 local authority respondents to their freedom of information request (86%) had reduced spending on universal youth services, amounting to a 40% cut in spending over four years. One in 10 had reduced spending by 70% or more. When asked about how these cuts impacted on provision 87% had seen one or more youth centres shut since 2011. In total, there was a halving in the number of youth centres between 2010/11 and 2017/18. The report also looked at how trained youth workers can provide vital support for young people affected by violent crime and identified effective interventions and initiatives.

Serious Violence Bill

The Government announced its intention in the last Queen’s Speech (in December 2019) to bring forward a Serious Violence Bill to create a new duty on a range of agencies and sectors including education, health, social services and youth offending to work collaboratively, share data and information and put in place plans to prevent serious violence. The legislation will also amend the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to ensure that serious violence is an explicit priority for Community Safety Partnerships. This follows a consultation which took place last year.

Violence Reduction Units

The Government is investing £70m over two years for Police and Crime Commissioners to establishing Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) in the 18 areas worst affected by serious violence. Bringing together the police, local government, health, community leaders and other partners, the new units will be responsible for identifying what is driving violent crime in the local area and coming up with a co-ordinated response. This is based on the perceived success of cities like Chicago and Glasgow in a ‘public health approach’ to tackling serious violence. First announced in the summer of 2019, the money was announced in two tranches, the second in December 2019; the allocations can be found here.

This was followed in March by interim guidance for those receiving Home Office funding to establish a VRU or areas considering setting-up a VRU. It includes practical approaches to establishing a VRU, key questions to consider when developing a needs assessment and for deepening community engagement, as well as case studies on VRU practice. A process evaluation was published in August 2020 charting how VRUs have been established, highlighting enablers, barriers and learning.

Knife Crime Prevention Orders

Introduced through the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, Knife Crime Prevention Orders allow the Police to apply to the courts to place restrictions for any child over-12 believed to routinely carry a knife/blade including curfews, geographical restrictions and limiting the use of social media, and positive requirements such as attendance at educational courses, life skills programmes, participation in group sports, drug rehabilitation and anger management classes. Breaching the order is a criminal offence and can lead to imprisonment of up to two years. The Home Office are currently conducting a pilot which will run until June 2021, with the intention to introduce the orders across all police forces, pending assessment after the pilot.

Serious Violence Reduction Orders

In September 2020 Ministers launched a consultation on giving police greater powers to stop and search individuals with prior knife convictions. The Home Office aims to use Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVRO) to increase the chances of repeat offenders being caught. Under current stop-and-search laws, police typically must have “reasonable grounds” to carry out the search, such as suspecting someone is carrying drugs or a weapon, but under the new powers, officers would be able to stop and search those who are subject to an SVRO to check if they are unlawfully carrying a knife or an offensive weapon.

Youth Endowment Fund

The Youth Endowment Fund was established in 2019 with a ten-year £200m grant from the Home Office in a bid to prevent children and young people from being drawn into violent crime. It funds and evaluates projects and builds support with others to put effective approaches into practice. In July the fund announced the names of 130 charities, social enterprises, local authorities and youth organisations who will receive a share of £6.5 million.

Youth Violence Commission

The cross-party Youth Violence Commission, launched in 2017, looking at the causes of youth violence, published its final report in July. The report advocates evidence-based and long-term solutions to the complex root causes of youth violence identifying these as: childhood trauma; undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues; inadequate state provision and deficient parental support; and poverty and social inequality; noting the contributing factors of austerity and a lack of trust between police and some communities. The Commission calls for a focus on early intervention and a commitment to meaningful and sustained collaboration across agencies and sectors, advocating for a public health approach and the implementation of VRUs (see above), and a significant re-investment in early childhood centres and trauma-informed services to limit the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences.

The Commission was critical of changes to how youth services are structured, funded, and delivered noting the impact of funding cuts, changes towards targeted programmes over open-access youth work and inconsistent provision. It called for a National Youth Policy Framework, involving a statutory obligation on central and local government to deliver youth services and an Ofsted-like inspection regime for youth organisations together with an overhaul of funding arrangements, in which more funding with a longer-term focus reaches grass-roots organisations.

An ambition to have zero school exclusions, an overhaul of careers advice and PHSE and increased employability support in schools and custody, and the introduction of integrated CAMHS support in schools, as well as a greater role for apprenticeships, was also called for.

And finally, the report recommends an increased focus on community policing and for every primary and secondary school to have a connected police officer. Acknowledging the negative impact of ‘stop and search’ and need for it to be reformed into an ‘intelligence-led’ tactic.

County lines

HMI Probation (in their 2019 Annual report) found that county lines, and associated activity, are prevalent across England and Wales involving myriad criminal activities (gangs, drugs, violence and criminal and sexual exploitation) and a major challenge for YOTs and other criminal justice agencies. However, the Inspectorate found the response from YOTs has been mixed, praising the “heroic efforts” by some teams, but found “a deeply concerning lack of awareness” and understanding of county lines issues in other areas. HMIP concluded that there was an urgent need for support and guidance.

Coincidentally the MoJ subsequently published (October 2019) County lines exploitation: guidance for practitioners for YOTs. The guide sets out the signs which indicate that a child maybe being exploited through county lines, the best practice referral pathways to follow and outlines the National Referral Mechanism when it is believed that a child may also be a victim of modern slavery trafficking.

Out of Court diversion

The emphasis on diversion at pre-court stage makes the youth justice model different to the adult system, and evidence does exist for individual schemes supporting the impact of diverting children on reoffending rates. However as the numbers diverted from the youth justice system are not collected centrally little is known about where youth diversion operates, and how many (and which) children are diverted. That gap was partially filled by Centre for Justice Innovation’s Mapping youth diversion in England and Wales which found that only 19 of the 152 YOTs did not operate a point-of-arrest diversion scheme. It found that diversion is widely but variably practised, in many areas eligibility criteria are unduly strict, referral processes are slow, and interventions are too long, meaning the benefits of diversion are not fully leveraged in all cases. A gap in the capacity of YOTs to capture and analyse the data, means that the number and profile of children being diverted cannot be confidently stated.

The variability of diversion practice is a concern to the HMI Probation. Their 2019 annual report (on inspections) found “significant variation”. Highly-performing services were found to use these measures appropriately, while others were found to be “too punitive, too lenient or too inconsistent” in their use.

The Centre for Justice Innovation followed up their mapping report with a briefing (Strengthening Youth Diversion) which usefully explains the rationale and practice on youth diversion. It calls on national policymakers to take action to strengthen practice by promoting clearer national guidance that reflects current evidence; examples of good practice; a funding system that properly reflects youth diversion work; and a new set of data recording standards and systems to accurately record and publish diversion activity.

Youth Court

In May 2020 the Centre for Justice Innovation published a briefing paper (Young people’s voices on youth court) highlighting the experiences of young people in youth court. Much of what young people said was related to procedural fairness – the importance of feeling fairly treated in determining future trust in and compliance with the law, driven by four factors: understanding the court process; having a voice in proceedings; being treated with respect and dignity; and being able to trust the neutrality of the decisions made. The paper was followed by a more substantial report by the centre in partnership with the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research which considers how youth court practice should become more ‘problem-solving’ to better address children’s underlying welfare needs.

In the recently published sentencing white paper (see below) MoJ revealed that it will be exploring problem-solving approaches in the youth justice system, including building the evidence base for the use of youth offender panels beyond their current use for (the most common) community referral orders. And it is understood that the Children’s Commissioner for England is planning to conduct a project looking at the work of Youth Courts.

Sentencing White Paper

The Government’s Sentencing White Paper (September 2020) sets out proposed changes to the sentencing and release framework in England and Wales – A Smarter Approach to Sentencing. A separate and more detailed LGIU briefing – Sentencing White Paper: youth justice and criminal records checks – has been prepared covering relevant developments concerning local authorities’ responsibilities for youth justice and interests in criminal records checks, including:

  • Reforms to make sentencing for the most common custody sentences more flexible including allowing more time spent under community supervision.
  • Changes to minimum tariffs, tariff reviews and release points for murder, serious violent and sexual offences.
  • Strengthening and increasing the flexibility of community orders to give the courts more confidence to use them more often.
  • Raising the threshold for custodial remand and requiring the courts to explain their remand decisions.
  • Cutting the length of time before a conviction becomes “spent” in order to increase the employment chances of ex-offenders (see below).

Youth Custody

The secure estate faces a multitude of issues ranging from how to manage the behaviours and needs of the children it accommodates, increasing levels of violence and the impact on children’s safety and levels of self-harm. The number of interventions involving physical restraint and incidents of self-harm in youth custody hit a five-year high in 2019.

HMI Prison’s 2019 Annual Report concluded that while there had been an overall improvement in conditions since 2017 the Chief Inspector warned against complacency as levels of violence remains high and bullying was a constant concern. Indeed its subsequent annual survey of the children who are detained in Youth Offender Institutions (YOIs) and Secure Training Centres (Children in Custody 2018–19) published in February – still found that the most pressing issues for children are the increasing levels of bullying and violence: 48% reported having experienced victimisation by other children. The rising levels of violence have led to increasing use of restraint and separation (see below). Nearly two-thirds of children reported being subject to restraint and 59% reported having been kept locked up and stopped from mixing with other children as a punishment. The Chief Inspector concluded that there are too few incentives for children who behave well and “chronic inconsistencies” in the application of rewards and sanctions.

This follows a separate HMI Prisons report published in January on the widespread and varying use of separation of children in YOIs from their peers, amounting in many cases solitary confinement. Inspectors found “fundamental flaws” in the use of separation: many children separated from their peers in YOIs are effectively held in harmful solitary confinement, with little human contact and in conditions which risks damaging their mental health.

This provides the background to the Justice Select Committee current inquiry into youth custody. Taking evidence from a range of experts and people across the sector, the Committee has been exploring: the factors that contribute to race disproportionality and how the justice system is responding to concerns about it; diversion and out-of-court disposals; the resettlement needs of children released from custody; the effects of Covid-19 on the youth justice system; and progress on putting education at the heart of youth custody as recommended by the 2016 Taylor review.

Secure Schools Pilot

In July 2019 the Government announced that the Oasis Charitable Trust had been chosen to run the first secure school on the site of Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent. It had been due to open in late 2020. The Oasis Charitable Trust runs 52 academies across England. The secure school is expected to accommodate up to 64 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17, including those on remand. The project has been hit by delays, with the MOJ recently confirming that the school will now open in 2022, subject to securing primary legislation enabling a charity to run a secure school. Interested groups have reacted negatively to the use of the Medway STC site believing that the design, location and its history make it unsuitable; calling for secure schools to be smaller and comparable in size to secure children’s homes (which tend to have 7 to 38 beds).

Review of pain-inducing restraint

June 2020 saw the publication of the long-awaited review of the pain-inducing restraint in the youth justice system by former YJB chair Charlie Taylor alongside the government’s response. It sets out a series of reforms that could change the culture of behaviour management in the youth secure estate, but it stopped short of recommending an outright ban on the use of such techniques stating instead that they should only be used in exceptional circumstances i.e. to prevent serious physical harm to a child or adult. It has been reported (and confirmed by the MOJ) that pain-inducing restraint has been removed from the core training syllabus for officers (in the youth secure estate).

Campaign to limit the use of Custody

In June, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice – an alliance of youth justice organisations – published proposals (Ensuring custody is a last resort for children in England and Wales) for ensuring that custody is only ever used as a genuine last resort for children, claiming that despite this principle already being enshrined in domestic law and international human rights conventions, current practice shows it is not being applied. The proposed new criteria would ensure that custody is only made available for the most serious crimes, where the child poses a serious and continuing risk to the public and there is no way of managing that risk in the community. In such cases the criteria would require the courts to obtain an assessment of the child considering their particular circumstances, and a report on arrangements that could be put in place in the community, determining whether any sentence other than a custodial one would be sufficient to protect the public.


It is notable that despite the very significant reduction over the last ten years in first-time entrants and the numbers of children in-custody, the rate and frequency of reoffending is higher.

A joint thematic inspection from HMI Probation and HMI Prisons (Youth resettlement – final report into work in the community) published in October 2019 found that young people leaving Youth Offender Institutions (YOIs) are getting too little support in the community and are being “set up to fail”. Frequently, resettlement planning was found to focus on managing behaviour in custody and not planning for resettlement in the community with very little work found to have been completed in-custody to address offending behaviour.

At the same time work conducted in the second part of the sentence within the community did not build on – or even worse, ignored – what had taken place in-custody. Inspectors found very little joining up of education and training in-custody and after release, with education or training beginning immediately after release only in a minority of cases. A lack of suitable and safe accommodation was also found to be an ongoing problem, with local authorities reluctant to pay for accommodation in advance, leading to individuals only being informed of their new address on the eve or on the day of release. Accommodation was offered many miles away from family and in places where the young person did not know anybody with the emotional impact of this being ignored.

In only a quarter of cases identified with a health need was there evidence that the YOT had provided support or intervention for these needs after release. A similar pattern was found on substance misuse and input from children’s social care services. Inspectors found that three-quarters of the case managers interviewed had had no training in managing resettlement cases. Consequently outcomes were poor: three months after release, ten of the 50 cases inspected had reoffended, and over half were under police investigation. Ten had been breached and six had gone missing.

The link between children’s experience of domestic abuse and criminality

In April 2020, the Victims Commissioner published a review (Sowing the Seeds: Children’s experience of domestic abuse and criminality) examining the relationship between children’s experiences of domestic abuse and offending behaviour together with the options for early intervention. The review concluded that children exposed to domestic abuse are not casual bystanders, impacts can be “huge and far-reaching” with an overlap between children’s experience of domestic abuse and children’s offending behaviour: a quarter who were identified as having socially unacceptable behaviour also have identified concerns about domestic abuse of a parent or carer. Children who experience domestic abuse may seek alternative relationships leaving them vulnerable to sexual and criminal exploitation, those in unregulated care homes and children-in-care sent far from home are particularly vulnerable. The criminal justice response was found to be inconsistent. Early intervention to identify and support children who experience domestic abuse is seen to be crucial. However, support thresholds are currently considered so high that things have to be “really serious” before children’s social care services intervene.

Changes to youth criminal records

The government has announced changes to the criminal records disclosure rules governing what is automatically disclosed through standard and enhanced criminal records certificates issued by the Disclosure and Barring Service. The new legislation will remove the requirement for automatic disclosure of youth cautions, reprimands and warnings and removes the ‘multiple convictions’ rule which requires the automatic disclosure of all convictions where a person has more than one conviction, regardless of the nature of their offence or sentence. Those who have childhood convictions for minor offences will no longer have to disclose them after 5.5 years. (Minor offences received by adults will also no longer be disclosed after 11 years). These changes follow a Supreme Court judgment made in 2019.

Building upon this, the Sentencing White Paper (see above) set out proposals for cutting the length of time before a conviction becomes “spent” and removing the rule that convictions resulting in a custodial sentence of over four years can never become “spent” in order to increase the employment chances of ex-offenders (adults and children).


On one level the youth justice system over the last ten to twelve years has been a huge success seeing dramatic falls (85%) in the number of first-time entrants into the system and a 70% fall in the number of children in-custody, when the adult prison population rose by 8% over the same period. A review of the system conducted by Crest Advisory (Examining the youth justice system: what drove the falls in the first time entrants and custody, and what should we do as a result?) found this had been driven partly by a successful expansion of preventative and diversionary measures undertaken by YOTs, but primarily because of a general contraction in police activity driven by the revision of the ‘offences brought to justice’ target on police forces in 2008, and its subsequent removal in 2010.

On another level the youth justice system is failing. Too many young people go on to reoffend after serving a custodial sentence, which is down to poor rehabilitation and resettlement work either side of the gate. Like their adult probation counterparts, YOTs are struggling to address the small number of highly prolific offenders who are clogging up the system. Youth courts continue to breed distrust among young people with a string of reviews from Carlile, Taylor and Lammy calling for significant reforms that are yet to take place.

The 2017 Lammy report found racial disproportionality in the youth justice system was well known about for quite some time. As overall numbers have come down the differences appear starker, but those racial disparities have always been there. Aside from isolated examples of good practice no serious action was taken, with the sector judged by Lammy as being too slow to act. Almost three years later the latest government update suggests that we are perpetually stuck around the corner from knowing where the problems lie, awaiting the production of more government analysis.

The new YJB Chair, Keith Fraser, sees addressing the over-representation of children from certain groups within the youth justice system, specifically children from a BAME background, from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and looked-after children, as a top-priority for the YJB (see here). However, HMI Probation’s latest report on YOT inspections (published in October 2019) concluded that despite examples of local good practice, there are many more YOTs “who are not doing enough”, and are ill-equipped to deal with ethnic disproportionality.

Meanwhile, the Police and the Home Office appear as bystanders when it is well known that these disparities begin at the point of entry to the system (the Lammy Review did not cover policing). Reversing a trend that has started way down the line can be harder to address. The government’s new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities may be good news on the horizon in that the Commission will be explicitly looking at disparities in ‘Stop and Search’ (including building trust between communities and police force areas), police cautions and out-of-court disposals.

Inspectors’ condemnation of the youth custody estate for its level of violence, poor education and rehabilitation activities has been a constant for a number of years. The pilot secure school at Medway was promised almost four year ago. Subject to a series of delays, it will not open until 2022. Originally promised two schools, the other in the North West did not get funded. Still very little is known about how different a secure school will actually be – the new site will be a refurbishment of the former failed Secure Training Centre. There is wide support for reconfiguring the youth custodial estate away from the large Youth Offender Institutions (which hold around 73% of those in custody) in favour of much smaller more localised secure establishments which provide for a more therapeutic and rehabilitative environment. This is something the Government committed to do following the 2016 Taylor review, and reaffirmed in the recently published Sentencing White Paper however the scale of ambition and pace of change is slow.

There are some encouraging proposals in the White Paper such as reducing the amount of time some young people are required to disclose details of their convictions to prospective employers, much needed even if we weren’t heading for a difficult time for young people in the labour market.

And significantly, proposals for stronger high-end community sentences to encourage their take up by the courts and, secondly, reforms to the legal tests for custodial remand, to avoid unnecessary use of custody for children are to be (very much) welcomed. The number of children held in youth custody on remand increased by 12% in 2018-19, and now accounts over a quarter (28%) of all children in youth custody – the largest proportion over the last ten years. Two-thirds of children who are remanded do not subsequently receive a custodial sentence. The reforms to community sentences could, according to MoJ figures, reduce the in-custody population by up to a (almost) quarter, if the pilots are successful and the reforms rolled out. That will be a significant development but will require investment in community interventions and in the quality of community sentences and rehabilitation programmes.

However, strategically the government has failed to cash-in the financial gains made in reducing first-time entrants, the number of proven offences and the custodian population. The outcomes for those still in the system appear to be significantly worse, despite a smaller cohort being worked with. They represent the most complex of cases. There was an opportunity to ‘save to invest (and then save again)’ that seems to have been lost; at least for now, pending the forthcoming spending review.

External Links

A Smarter Approach to Sentencing – MOJ white paper on sentencing

Related Briefings

Sentencing White Paper: youth justice and criminal records checks – September 2020

Offensive Weapons Act – is it enough? – August 2019

‘Keeping kids safe’: Children’s Commissioner – gang violence etc – March 2019

Review of Youth Justice in England and Wales – March 2017