Rather than handing young adults to private companies, the government should look at what actually works

The government wants to push young adult offenders into a probation service modelled on the failed work programme.

The government wants to push young adult offenders into a probation service modelled on the failed work programme

Today the shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan backed one of the key recommendations of our new IPPR report Everyday Justice, which is to bring young adult offenders between the ages of 18 and 21 within the remit of the Youth Offending Teams (YOTs).

The youth justice system is the most effective part of our criminal justice system. Between 2002/03 and 2012/13 the number of first time entrants into the youth justice system fell by 67 per cent, while the number of people under the age of 18 in custody fell by 49 per cent.

In part this was due to a change in the way the police are held to account: the big falls occurred after the government dropped its target for the police to increase the numbers of offences brought to justice. This target had perversely incentivised the police to make arrests for trivial offences, dragging many young people into the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

But the successful fall in the numbers flowing through the system has been sustained since then and the local youth offending teams have played a vital role. Because the YOTs are multi-disciplinary teams, including police officers, social workers, and health professionals, they are able to take a rounded view of a young offender’s complex needs. The most successful YOTs allocate a key worker to each young offender, who then has the time to develop a proper relationship with them. 

These consistent and strong relationships are regarded by criminologists as vital in encouraging offenders to desist from crime.

At present when a young person turns 18, they exit this successful system and are treated as adult offenders.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Young adults are a group in transition, still in the process of maturing. They are also the group with the highest reoffending rates. Missteps at this stage will have particularly harmful effects, while the right support can make a huge difference.

However, it is during this maximum period of vulnerability that youth services stop, and young adults no longer receive any specific focus in the criminal justice system.

In its review of the youth justice system published in February 2013, the Justice Committee stated:

“The transition between youth and adult provision is a period of high risk for 18 year old offenders. We would like to see earlier planning, better information sharing and a smoother transition between youth offending teams and probation trusts, and between the youth and adult secure estate.”

Rather than handing young adults over to the new private companies that the government wants to run the adult probation service, we call for them to be brought under the proven and tested remit of the YOTs and the Youth Justice Board.

Alongside this, we should seek to reduce the numbers of young adults going to prison, where reoffending rates are high. We should create a new community sentence tailored to this group.

Sentencers could choose from a menu of intensive supervision requirements, enhanced monitoring requirements, 30 hours per week of required activity, curfew requirements, accredited programmes, unpaid work requirements, as well as tailored interventions for each offender, with reviews of progress in court and swift sanctions for non-compliance. 

While this will require some upfront investment, we believe this could be made available be devolving custody budgets for this age group to city regional combined authorities. 

The government is intent on pushing young adult offenders into a reformed probation service modelled on the failed work programme. Instead we should look to those parts of our system, such as the YOTs, that work – and expand them. 

Rick Muir is associate director for public service reform at IPPR

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