Headlines: May 8th, 2009

A new report says proposals to make local authorities financially responsible for children in penal custody take too narrow a view of what needs to be done. The Howard League for Penal Reform says focusing on the devolution of custodial budgets masks real problems with policy and law.

In ‘To devolve or not to devolve?’, the League looks at the arguments for and against councils taking over financial responsibility. It finds that while councils should have a leading role in tackling youth crime questions about funding are just one aspect of a larger issue. The report says there is no guarantee that devolving central custodial budgets would lead to improvements in the youth justice system.

The Howard League’s Director, Frances Crook, said the need for councils to have incentives to care for all their children was increasingly accepted and she added: “Cases of children’s services ‘washing their hands’ of individuals once they enter the criminal justice system and come into contact with youth offending teams are all too common.”

The vast majority of children in the criminal justice system were likely to be children in need and local authorities were required by law to identify and support them. A child’s involvement in the criminal justice system should not hinder this. The League, she said, had some sympathy with the argument that one solution was to devolve centralised budgets so councils would have more money for early prevention and engaging young people.

The report concludes, however, that focussing on finances provides too narrow a view. Ms Crook said there were perverse financial incentives in the current system but she added: “We fear that focussing on the devolution of custodial budgets in search of a ‘magic bullet’ solution masks the real problems of policy, law and attitudes that contribute far more to a dysfunctional and failing youth justice system.”