Claudia Sturt speaks at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum

Claudia Sturt, CEO of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), talks about next steps for the youth justice system and embedding Child First principles.

Claudia Sturt

I am pleased to have been invited today to share reflections on where we are as a youth justice system and where we, at the YJB, hope to see future progress.

Many of you listening will know a lot about the YJB. It was established in 1998 under the Crime and Disorder Act.

At the YJB we have a statutory responsibility to maintain oversight of the whole system, from first arrest to adulthood or discharge, identifying and sharing effective practice, publishing relevant information and offering independent expert advice to ministers- in the Ministry of Justice in the first instance- and other policy and decision-makers.

The Board itself is made up of a Board of experts in their fields from education to youth work to academia to policing which is supported by an executive – totalling about 100 staff.

Before I turn to the next steps for youth justice in England and Wales I’d just like to offer a quick view of the current landscape: both in terms of the most recent data and what we know is the most effective approach.

Latest statistics

The latest statistics show: a continued positive trend of fewer children entering the youth justice system and an all-time low in the number of children in secure care or custody. Much of this very welcome reduction is due to the excellent work the 154 local authority youth justice teams, whose expert practitioners are tireless in ensuring that childhood mistakes don’t metastasise into entrenched, full-blown offending. But some of it is due to delays in policing and courts by which children who commit offences are adults by the time their cases are dealt with.

And, especially post-COVID, those children who remain in the system face more acute multiple, complex challenges and need more support to remove barriers and create opportunities for them, in order to move forward with their lives.

Racial disparity, whilst reducing slightly in a number of areas, is still unacceptably present. Incidentally, there’s a debate within the YJB about whether terms like ‘disparity’ and ‘disproportionality’ are too euphemistic, and whether we should be braver and attribute the disproportionality in justice outcomes to a widespread malaise in society that tends to see children from a Black or ethnic minority background as less vulnerable than they are.

Child First

The evidence consistently tells us that using Child First as a guiding principle is effective in addressing the offending behaviour of the small number of children within the youth justice system today, and in preventing offending by those children who are more likely to enter the system.

Child First is not simply a mantra or an ideology – it is an approach based on evidence of what works.

So, what does the evidence tell us?

Underpinning everything is the imperative to understand and treat children as children - prioritising the best interests of children and recognising their particular needs, capacities, rights and potential. In a Child First system, all work is child-focused, developmentally informed, acknowledges structural barriers and meets responsibilities towards children.

It’s vital to promote children’s individual strengths and capacities to build their pro-social identity for sustainable desistance, leading to safer communities and fewer victims. In a Child First system, all work is constructive and future-focused, built on supportive relationships that empower children to fulfil their potential and make positive contributions to society.

Children respond well to collaboration that encourages their active participation, engagement and wider social inclusion. In a Child First system, all work is a meaningful collaboration with children and their carers.

Immersion in the justice system creates criminogenic stigma, which undermines positive efforts. A Child First system prevents stigma by diverting children wherever possible from the justice web.

I should acknowledge that the YJB weren’t the authors or first adopters of this approach, we have learnt and continue to learn from others, many of whom have been trailblazers in the adoption of Child First principles.

And I would also like to address two major considerations for youth justice, that are sometimes suggested as being at odds with a Child First approach, namely, risk and victims.

Victims and risk – compatibility with Child First

It is sometimes suggested that a Child First approach does not take into account the needs of victims or address public protection. I don’t accept that; recognising that through vulnerability and immaturity a child may present a risk of harm to others is a vital step to understanding and meeting their needs.

Children change as they mature and it’s essential we view risk factors as dynamic, and allow them to reduce as circumstances change. Because adopting Child First principles is effective in preventing offending, doing so is very much in the interests of potential victims and the broader public.

I do understand that victims of crime may need to know that the perpetrator is taking responsibility for their actions and perhaps receiving punishment, but if our goal is to prevent future offending, we must follow the evidence – addressing underlying causes of offending behaviour and diverting from stigma wherever possible. We cannot turn the clock back, but we can take steps to reduce the likelihood of future harms and future victims.

I’m sure Professor Steve Case will be talking about emerging evidence around this later.

So what have we been doing to bring our Child First principle to effect change in policy and practice? I believe that over the last few years the YJB, supported by numerous partners, has achieved a lot.

Child First in practice

Since 2018 Child First has been the guiding principle of the YJB.

In 2019 we updated the standards for children in the youth justice system and last year released the first part of revised case management guidance, with Child First evidence at the centre of every element, and practical suggestions for professionals working in youth justice services, including police, courts and those from the secure estate on how to support children and their families-and deliver against the published standards.

Case management guidance includes specific issues such as:

  • managing sexual, violent or terror offences
  • working with multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA)
  • Criminal Behaviour Orders and other civil orders
  • appropriate adults
  • transitions and transfers
  • working with denial
  • victims
  • working with parents and carers

Whilst this is case management guidance rather than rules, our recently issued terms and conditions for the youth justice grant which come into force on 1 April 2023 mandates its use to ensure standards are met and performance is satisfactory.

The format of case management guidance has been altered to become a ‘manual’, which means that practitioners will more easily be able to navigate and search the documents both as points of reference and in real time.

Since the first update we’ve seen great engagement with the guidance so thank you to those who have given up their time as part of the working group, reviewers and those working to embed the guidance across other government departments and organisations.

The remaining sections of guidance: links to the Child Gravity Matrix, guidance on out-of-court disposals, prevention and diversion, and on custody and resettlement will be published later this year following consultation and agreement with key relevant stakeholders.

Importantly, for youth justice services, this includes working with HM Inspectorate for Probation to ensure the alignment of messaging and a clear and consistent view of what good looks like in relation to out-of-court disposals, which can be reflected in the guidance.

Child First in practice – pathfinders

As well as updating guidance we continue to support pathfinders which explore Child First evidence and principles. These pathfinders are wholly or partly funded by the YJB under rigorous grant agreements and exist to solve intractable issues or further the sector’s knowledge of what works in youth justice. We can’t undertake to fund this work in perpetuity, but we can sometimes help develop and bear the cost of piloting a new approach, and so de-risk it for local authorities and others who want to innovate. I’ll provide some examples which are live or near conclusion right now:

In Southwark the youth justice service is working with award winning charity Youth Ink which places lived experience of the criminal justice system at the heart of its service delivery model. We hope to share more with you on this project following its evaluation via a webinar in June so please keep an eye on the YJBulletin for tickets.

Medway youth justice service is developing a new app as part of their work to embed a child first approach to assessment and relationships with children. The app will act as one of the tools to aid communication with practitioners and also to help children explore their futures – who they are, who they want to be and how to maximise the development of pro-social identities. When complete the app will be made freely available to all services.

In Bradford, the Child First diversion pathfinder has been working with the local police and crime commissioner (PCC) in developing a robust local diversion process, coordinating the Chance for Change programme that utilises Outcome 22 so in future a child can be offered diversion activity without the requirement to admit guilt of an offence. We see this as a valuable initiative to reduce racial disparity by designing out a requirement that impacted more on children from ethnic minority backgrounds. We’re looking forward to the evaluation of the pathfinder which will be published this year accompanied by a webinar to discuss findings and learnings that can be applied by other services. Again, please keep an eye on the YJBulletin for information.

Across London we have two exciting pathfinders running:

Firstly, the London resettlement pathfinder builds on the excellent constructive resettlement work already done by South and West Yorkshire resettlement consortium. This project, which focuses on building a pro-social identity has also shown the importance of co-ordinated regional approaches to resettlement, both to solve those structural barriers that exist for children, and also to provide the skills and expertise for staff supporting children as they leave custody.

Secondly, the other pan-London pathfinder, which is working closely with the resettlement pathfinder is known as the LAP – the London Accommodation Pathfinder, aiming to reduce reliance on custodial places for children awaiting trial.

Custodial remand for children is a particular area of concern for us. Whilst numbers of children in secure settings are falling, those on remand make up a disturbing proportion of these, at 45% last year. In many cases the decision to remand is not based on the need to protect victims or witnesses, but to have confidence in where a child will be accommodated whilst awaiting trial. Since nearly three quarters of remanded children will not go on to receive a custodial sentence the case for a better alternative is compelling.

To this end, we are working with London councils to open two alternative homes for children at risk of custodial remand or sentence. This innovative project will provide children with the support they need whilst offering reassurance for judicial decision makers on where those children are living.

We are excited that that two sites in North and East London will be opening over the next few months and will provide a caring environment with practice based on Child First evidence of what works. As always, we’ll keep you updated via the bulletin.

Effective practice

Pathfinders are, of course, just a small part of the story and I’m pleased to see you’ll be hearing from Michael O’Connor who is the Head of Service at Swindon Youth Justice Service where the operationalisation of Child First evidence has been a joy to see.

I will let Michael tell their impressive story but I would like to acknowledge that there is evidence-based practice being driven locally throughout England and Wales and thank all of those who continue to contribute to our understanding of how we invest to get the very best outcomes for children, and therefore for victims and communities.

Prevention and diversion project

I spoke earlier about the importance of diverting children where possible from formal contact with the justice system and the stigma this carries.

Given that around half of the youth justice service caseloads tend to be children receiving preventative and diversionary support, the YJB has worked alongside the Association of Youth Justice Service Managers and the Probation Service on a review of prevention and diversion in practice.
We published the final report of this project last month, and this feels like an important step for all of us in the system.

The report found widespread confusion over definitions of early intervention practices, a significant gap in data, and varying or inconsistent practice, owing to a lack of central guidance.

In response:

  • we now have agreed definitions that makes partnership and collaboration more straightforward
  • new diversion data will be collected as part of new key performance indicators from 1 April - in recognition of the important role of prevention and diversion activity carried out by youth justice services, the data collection will include all children with whom the youth justice service is working, not just those with a conviction
  • additional practice resources have been made available
  • our incredible youth ambassador network created a resource to support practitioners in improving voluntary early intervention
  • the new Prevention and Diversion Assessment, which is currently being piloted, has been designed specifically for diversion cases and will be mandated from April 2024
  • and, as mentioned, we are updating the out of court disposal section of case management guidance to reflect the findings of the report

I would like to take this opportunity to thank partners and those in the sector who fed into various consultations and surveys as well as, of course, the talented and experienced children and young adults who fed in their views to produce a powerful resource for the sector. Alongside this project we have been working with police and other partners to support the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) review of Outcome 22 and community resolution guidance to ensure the specific needs of children are considered. These have now been finalised and shared with forces.

The documents will provide much needed clarity both as to how these informal options can be utilised and encourage increased partnership working and joint decision making with the police and youth justice services to ensure children’s needs can be identified and met outside of the formal criminal justice system where possible.

A very important area in prevention and diversion which I mentioned briefly earlier is the opportunity to use Outcome 22 to support those children whose distrust of the justice system - or authority more generally - makes them less likely to admit guilt and therefore more likely to miss out on opportunities to be diverted from the formal system. Recently published data show a 24% reduction in first time entrants from a Black background, at least part of which may be attributed to the beneficial impact of Outcome 22.

Of course, consistency in application of informal out of court disposals, as well as their recognition as a positive outcome, are vital for future progress. So we will continue to work closely with Chief Constable Catherine Roper, the NPCC Lead for Child Centred Policing to ensure guidance lands, is used consistently and appropriately, and regularly reviewed.

Another update to look forward to is the Child Gravity Matrix – a tool which guides decisions in respect of children who offend. This is being updated for the first time in 10 years and we’ve been supporting the NPCC to ensure it reflects Child First evidence. Publication is due this spring.

One thing we can ALL do is ensure we’re all speaking the same language when it comes to prevention and diversion – so please do review and use the definitions that were produced via the project. This common language and understanding will support us to work more effectively and to accurately record and analyse the impact of early intervention in the future.

Conclusion – the importance of partnerships

Whilst adopting an evidence-based approach might seem straight forward, it isn’t easy. It is complex and convoluted, it is unpicking existing, established systems which support vested interests. As such any one agency can’t do this alone, we need to work in partnership, to build a movement.

I’m pleased to say that over the last two years I’ve seen more and more organisations and disciplines independently drawing similar conclusions about what works, perhaps expressed in slightly different ways but essentially saying the same thing whether we describe it as child friendly, child-centred, Child First, adult responsibilities or children’s rights.

We should acknowledge that we won’t get the change we want overnight, but there is growing momentum and support from those who are focused on the evidence.

So, I’d like to end with a thank you and an ask. Thank you to all of you who are working so diligently to embed the evidence and to evaluate its impact with healthy challenge. My ask of you is to keep going and to ensure it’s working for all children, particularly those for whom the justice system is currently anything but.

My ask of everyone else is to join us – there is always room for more – in fact it’s vital for progress, to reduce the burden on society of offending and the pain suffered by victims, and to support even more children to become the healthy, happy, contributing adults they have the potential to be. Thank you for listening.

Published 17 March 2023