Features: March 1st, 2013

Phil Neal explains why better information sharing in the youth justice process is essential to ensuring youth offending rates continue to fall.

A number of initiatives have been introduced in recent years to cut youth crime. Early intervention schemes are targeting children sooner to steer them away from criminality, there has been a push for community-based rehabilitation to improve outcomes for under-18s entering the youth justice system and custodial sentences are reserved for those who have committed the most serious offences.

The work being done appears to be having an impact. The latest Home Office figures show that since 2008/09, 54 per cent fewer young people are coming into the youth justice system. There has been a 32 per cent reduction in the number of under-18s in custody and re-offending rates among this age group have fallen by 14 per cent.

While this is good news for all those working with young offenders, the difficulty is that those young people who do end up facing prison sentences often have incredibly complicated backgrounds and complex issues that need to be addressed. And these must be fully understood by practitioners through every stage of the judicial process in order to ensure proportionality in sentencing and keep more young people out of prison.

Understanding the child behind the crime

According to the Howard League of Penal Reform, more than half of young offenders have spent time in local authority care, around 88% have been excluded from school, 31% have a recognised mental health disorder and a quarter have a statement of special educational needs.

Information like this is being recorded and stored by schools, local authorities and teams such as health and social care every day. And it could provide practitioners working within the youth justice system with a much clearer picture of the lives of children and young people they are in contact with. This, in turn, will help teams to ensure the right services are put in place at the right time to achieve better outcomes and deliver value for money for the public purse.

Looking at the big picture

The ability to share information simply and securely is now easier than ever with advances in technology. This is a vital element in successful multi-agency working and sits at the heart of any effective early intervention strategy.

With the right IT systems in place, information from a child’s school record or details of the agencies they or their family are in contact with can be moved quickly and easily between the council, youth offending teams, legal representatives and any other parties involved in the court process. Having access to the bigger picture is essential to ensure the right decisions are made first time round to help young people turn their lives around.

However, in a recent survey conducted by Capita at the Youth Justice Convention, 40% of respondents working with young offenders said that it was not easy to share data with other teams using their current IT system and 42% said it was difficult or impossible to access the data they needed on the young people they are in contact with. This suggests that more work needs to be done to ensure the systems being used by youth justice teams support them in meeting the challenges they face.

Charlie Spencer, Head of Youth Offending for Sandwell Council, explains why having easier access to information on children is so beneficial for youth offending teams.

“Compiling all the information on a young person that is required for a comprehensive pre-sentence report takes time. My team often needs to gather information from schools, social workers, parents and others involved in the young person’s care. Information is frequently stored in paper files or disparate systems managed by the different services that are involved with the child and their family.

“In addition to this, we might know what crime the young person referred to us has been charged with but sometimes we do not have all the details relating to the surrounding circumstances or contributory factors. Information like this can make a real difference to the type and length of sentence so we want to include as much relevant detail in the report as we can. But the time needed to collate the data required is often lengthy.”

Being able to see more information about a young offender’s life, such as details of their background and education, can help teams to understand the circumstances that have led them to this point in their lives. This not only allows for a more holistic approach to tackling youth crime, it also expedites the youth justice process and helps teams to make more informed decisions about what action will be most likely to steer a child onto a more positive pathway in the future.

Informed judicial decisions

More informed decision making is just as important once a young offender gets to court, as Caroline Haughey, a barrister and specialist in the youth justice system, explains.

“Having a broader understanding of a child’s life, such as a history of neglect or abuse at home, a statement of special educational needs from their school or knowledge of previous mental health difficulties, can help ensure the right services are put in place sooner to prevent the young person from re-offending.

“In addition to this, if a legal representative can present a judge with historical data, such as a 99% attendance record from a child’s school, this can add weight to the argument that they can be relied upon to attend meetings with a probation officer or that they are more likely to successfully complete a programme put in place to address any issues with substance or alcohol misuse, for example. This can help persuade a judge to avoid passing a custodial sentence.”

Unexpected issues can also occur in a child’s life that may be taken into consideration as part of the judicial process, such as escalated mental health problems or bereavement in the family. This was another area explored in the Capita survey but, of those staff who responded, 48% said they do not have access to technology which allows them to identify changes in a young person’s circumstances. The technology already exists that enables issues to be flagged up and addressed. This could make a real difference to a child who has found themselves in front of a judge.

Continuing the falling trend

The government has shown its commitment to a payment-by-results strategy for post-prison rehabilitation schemes. While it remains unclear whether youth offending will become part of this initiative, it relies on being able to provide evidence that the services put in place to keep young people out of the youth justice system are working. According to three out of five staff who responded to the survey, they would not be able to easily do this currently.

With budgets under strain across local government, having the right level of detail about children and young people coming in to the youth justice system makes good financial sense.

According to the National Audit Office, if just one in 10 young offenders was prevented from going to prison, it would save over £100 million a year. But the positive impact on both the child and society as a whole is much more difficult to put a value on.

Phil Neal is managing director of Capita Children’s Services, suppliers of the One management information system.