Features: August 23rd, 2013

Phil Neal talks about how technology can help authorities to identify and help children at risk of future criminality and better support those already in the youth justice system.

There has been a noticeable shift in the pattern of offending among young people since 2008/09. According the latest figures, re-offending rates are up 3% despite a 37% smaller cohort, suggesting that a hard core of youngsters remain who have become locked in a cycle of criminality.

Youth teams are finding that increasingly, those young people entering the youth justice system have more complicated lives and a variety of different challenges that need to be overcome. Untangling and addressing these issues is no easy task.

But with the early intervention agenda gaining momentum, many authorities are adopting a much more cohesive approach to tackling youth crime. And the technology they use should support this.

Risk factors

The circumstances that encourage young people down a criminal pathway are varied. A history of truancy and low attainment can put a child at greater risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training). For the most vulnerable young people, this might lead to gang membership, substance abuse and involvement in more serious criminal activity.

Factors such as teenage parenthood, involvement in anti-social behaviour from a young age or living in deprived areas all have the potential to increase a young person’s chances of ending up in a criminal court when combined with other difficulties.

To fully understand a young person’s situation, you need a clear picture of their lives. You can then see how one disadvantaging influence has lead to another. This is key to putting the right services in place sooner to cut youth offending.

Changing approach

In terms of technology, the different local authority teams in contact with young people frequently operate relatively independently. When interactions between a child and their education welfare officer or social worker takes place, for example, details are often recorded on separate IT systems.

The need for more effective data sharing sits at the heart of the early intervention debate and is crucial in helping authorities to provide a better service to the children and families in their area.

All too often, youth teams spend many hours of time entering data on children and families into their own systems that has previously been keyed in by a social worker, for example, or calling up other agencies to request information on a child then sifting through paper to find what they need. This is not only time consuming; it also keeps talented staff in front of a computer screen when they could be supporting young people in their communities.

With greater efficiency a priority, authorities need to ensure that vital information on children and young people is easily accessible to those authorised to see it. Having a rich picture of a child’s background and circumstances, such as their school history, can give youth justice teams a greater understanding of what motivates a young person to offend. This will enable them to reduce the number of cases that end up in the youth courts, saving time and improving young lives.

Central hub of data

There are now more effective, technology-based solutions available that help ensure data can be shared effectively and securely. This allows all teams working with young people to make more informed decisions about what help they need.

Practitioners often find that a child’s behaviour can be explained by a combination of factors. Missing a vital piece of the jigsaw can be avoided if all available data on a child is accessible from a single screen. A centralised system will also support multi-agency working, which is fundamental to the success of schemes such as the ‘troubled families’ initiative. It can cut the cost of sourcing information and also support the management of budgets allocated on a payment-by-results basis.

With one view of a child, authorities could witness a step change in routine processes and a welcome end to chasing paper trails. A child’s details can be entered onto the system by one team and reused by another. Authorised staff will have access to a more complete record, allowing them to see if a child has special education needs, a history of involvement with social services or has been excluded from school in the past, for example. With sharper insight into the motivations and influences affecting the child, youth teams are better placed to help.

Supporting early intervention

A co-ordinated approach to information paves the way for more authorities to commit to early intervention in children’s services. It is much easier to catch problems early and prevent a child from becoming a young offender when risk factors have been identified and addressed before they have reached this point. Troubleshooting at a later date when the problems have become entrenched is likely to be expensive and less effective in guiding them down a different pathway that will enable them to make better life choices in the future.

However, it would be difficult to demonstrate the success of a new project designed to improve literacy skills among children at risk of future offending, for example, without ensuring schemes are targeted at the right cohort or gaining access to the relevant achievement data from schools and other educational settings.

Combining information from a range of services helps authorities to understand which strategies have a genuine impact on children’s lives. Equally, an informed team will be able to pinpoint those areas which need further action in order to be truly effective.

Local authorities are finding that operating IT systems that allow a single view of a child can also slash the cost of maintenance, hardware and upgrades by consolidating multiple systems into one.

Informing youth justice

When a young person enters the youth justice system, whether for the first time or as a re-offender, there are certain statutory and other requirements to meet. Multi-agency involvement is central to this process.

Local authorities now have financial responsibility for young people on remand and a single system will assist in the information gathering process to offer these young people the best chance of a decision which is right for them.

Pulling together data from a range of services will assist in the preparation of pre-sentence reports (PSR). Information requirements are wide ranging and can include:

· Historical contact details
· Current school
· School attendance
· Exclusions
· Information on children in care
· Entitlement to free school meals
· SEN status
· Involvement with social services

With all these details in one place, it is not only quicker to prepare a PSR but the information it contains will be accurate and up to date.

Being able to present more in-depth knowledge of a child’s background and circumstances can support judicial discretion in the legal process and may help to avoid a custodial sentence being passed. This will have a major impact on the life chances of a young person that has found themselves in the youth justice system.

Better outcomes

Recent enhancements to the technology used by all those working with the most vulnerable children and young people enable them to make better use of data and ensure it informs decisions being made on young lives, at every stage.

Ensuring youth offending teams have the tools they need to build a clear picture of the young person they are helping could be one of the most important steps in changing their lives for the better.

Phil Neal is managing director of Capita One, whose management information system is used by 120 local authorities to manage data on children and families.