Head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn reported to Parliament today that the Youth Justice Board, established in September 1998, has successfully developed and introduced a range of new non-custodial sentences and programmes for young offenders. There is scope, however, for the Board to improve forecasting of custodial numbers, deciding of placements and agreeing common aims and objectives with the Prison Service for establishments. And the Board needs to develop clearer plans for the future of the custodial estate, including the type and location of establishments. Further education and offending behaviour work with young offenders in custody can often be disrupted, and the work is too often not continued when the individual returns to his or her community.
In 2002-03, according to Youth Justice Board data, 268,500 offences were committed by young people aged 10 to 17 years in England and Wales. Some 73,700 young offenders received a reprimand or warning from the police and the courts handed out 93,200 sentences. The sentences included 59,400 non-custodial sentences and around 7,000 detentions in custody. Detentions in custody account for over two-thirds of the Board’s £394 million budget for 2003-04.
While the numbers of young people in custody have remained fairly constant (around 3,000 in 2002-2003, reducing to some 2,700 by June 2003), pressure on the number of places available, particularly in Wales, London and the South East, has led to a high number of transfers (2,400 between April 2002 and January 2003) between establishments, often to make room for new arrivals. This disrupts programmes to educate young offenders and stop them re-offending. According to today’s report, the Board should improve its forecasts of the likely numbers sentenced and draw up plans for improving the location and type of places required. And, if transfers are necessary to accommodate new offenders, the Board and Prison Service should take account of the extent to which offenders have engaged with their sentence plans – in addition to their age, sex and vulnerability – before deciding which of them should be moved.
Today’s report also points out that if the Youth Justice Board is to meet its aim of reducing the number of young people in custody, it will need to improve the credibility and effectiveness of higher tariff community sentences. Reconviction rates amongst those on higher tariff community sentences excluding the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme have remained high at around 60 per cent. Magistrates have welcomed the introduction of the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme, in particular the high level of contact hours. The Board’s guidelines stipulate the steps that should be taken if young offenders do not comply with the terms of the programme. In some areas over half the young offenders on the programme did not complete it and some had to be re-sentenced into custody. The Youth Justice Board is researching why this is happening and expects the results to be available in the Summer.
Weaknesses remain in the way young offenders are supervised in the community, in particular those released from custody. Full time education and training started in custody are all too often not continued in the community, mainly because of the logistical problems in finding suitable courses, a reluctance by some young people to attend and difficulties in persuading schools to accept young people who may have previously been excluded. Moreover, many young offenders do not know on the night before they are released from custody where they are going to live after release. The Youth Justice Board has worked with the Connexions Service to co-ordinate work, but action is needed to improve the readiness of all agencies involved in youth justice to work together.