What’s to be made of the changes announced yesterday to the governance of youth justice in England and Wales? The stripping from the Youth Justice Board of its role in commissioning, purchasing and monitoring of detention facilities is not altogether a surprise. The YJB’s failure to prevent the deteriorating situation in Rainsbrook and Medway Secure Training Centres in 2015 may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the problem is more deep seated than that. The Youth Custody Improvement Board (whose report on the secure estate was also published yesterday) was “astonished” that after sixteen years at the helm, the YJB considers the current arrangements not fit for the purpose of caring for or rehabilitating children and young people. Liz Truss seems to agree so youth custody will in future be hitched to her wagon of prison reform with a Youth Custody Service set up as a distinct arm of the new HM Prison and Probation Service.
Back in 1996, Prison Inspector Sir David, now Lord Ramsbotham recommended that the Prison service should relinquish responsibility for all children under the age of 18, arguing that its priorities meant it could not be expected to provide the level of care, supervision and support required by teenagers. Instead of implementing the recommendation, the Labour government hoped the YJB could transform the way the service looked after young people. Thanks to substantial investment, particularly into education within Young Offender Institutions, there were initial improvements. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, normally a stern critic of conditions for detained juveniles, concluded in 2002 that ‘results have been great, in some cases near miraculous’.
The improvements could not be sustained and despite substantial falls in the numbers in custody since 2008, Young Offender Institutions have struggled to provide safe decent environments let alone rehabilitative ones. Last year’s Inspectorate report on Wetherby found for example that “the core day was not designed to meet the needs of the population. Time out of cell was inconsistent and unpredictable, and there were frequent cancellations and regime restrictions. Exercise was limited to 30 minutes each day, weather permitting”. In truth, the levers available to the YJB have been limited and its influence over what happens in YOIs negligible compared to that of the Prison service.
So will the new Youth Custody Service fare any better in bringing about change? It’s certainly promising that a distinct cadre of specialist staff will be recruited and trained to work with young people. But they will need to be incentivised to stay in the sector. Historically, the prison service has not sufficiently recognised or rewarded work with young people despite its challenges and the skills required to do it well . There will need to be wider reforms; an agenda designed to make physical environments more suitable for teenagers and a review of the rules and procedures in YOIs most of which are primarily designed for adults. Achieving cultural change may be the hardest obstacle. When I was on the YJB, the POA objected for years to replacing traditional prison officer uniforms and were not exactly champions of a child centred approach.
Yet there were and no doubt are some excellent staff and good models of practice in the youth estate. When I left the YJB in 2006, I concluded that these could be very much more effective within an organisational ethos and structure dedicated to the secure care of young people. By that I meant a new service outside the prison system. We are not getting that, so the question is whether transformation can be driven from within it. I have my doubts.