Whilst the number of children entering the criminal justice system had fallen considerably over the past decade, MPs noted that the nature of the crimes children committed was far more severe, according to MPs. A new report by the House of Commons’ Justice Committee revealed a 10% increase in offences involving violence against the person over the last decade in terms as a proportion of the total. The average custodial sentence length for all offences had also increased by six months from 11.4 to 17.7 months over the last decade.
The justice committee noted that although fewer children entered the youth justice system than used to be the case, those who do face complex needs and vulnerabilities. The Committee took evidence from the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, who said that of the children currently entering the justice system, ‘70% have mental health difficulties and 70% have communications difficulties’.
In 2009, the number of those receiving a caution or a sentence (both of which can mean a child has ‘a record’, with implications for later life) was around 130,000. By 2019 this had fallen to 21,700 – a drop of 83%. The number of those sentenced to a custodial period in 2009 was 2,625; by March 2020 it had dropped to 737.
MPs called for a ‘whole-system approach’ involving a range of public agencies beyond those of the criminal justice system, such as educational, psychological and social services beyond those of the criminal justice system alone.
Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Committee said: ‘If we want better outcomes for these children – and that also means lower re-offending rates, which is better for society – we need to adopt a much broader approach. The criminal justice system needs to draw on a range of public agencies for help in this area. We need to bring in social, health and psychological services. Much greater priority should be given to this whole system approach in the development of future policy and practice.’
The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) and the Youth Justice Legal Centre, part of Just for Kids Law, said: ‘Children coming into contact with the criminal justice system are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They have often suffered neglect and abuse, have care experience and high levels of mental health issues or learning disabilities.’
MPs highlighted the role of diversion schemes reducing the number of children being formally processed through the court. Examples include ‘community resolutions’, in the professional parlance, or ‘out of court disposals’, can include referral to social or psychiatric services as well as treatments for substance abuse, personality disorders or learning difficulties. The report noted that there are inconsistencies in the provision and practice of diversion schemes across England and Wales. many of these measure are unavailable to children who are in custody and need help tackling their vulnerabilities and needs.
The committee emphasised that most experts in the field thought out of court disposals led to better outcomes for children. Charlie Taylor, the previous Chair of the Youth Justice Board told the Committee: ‘Though childrens’ backgrounds should not be used as an excuse for their behaviour, it is clear that the failure of education, health, social care and other agencies to tackle these problems contributes to their presence in the youth justice system.’
The report also raised questions as to why more than half of the children currently detained by the state were from Black, Asian or Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds when this group makes up only 18% of the overall population of children. A Ministry of Justice report found that in 2019 almost six out of ten children on remand (57%) were from a BAME background and in May 2020, it found that over half of children held in custody (52%) were from a BAME background.
The Justice Committee called on the government to provide a detailed research into the matter ‘including the cause of disproportionate imprisonment’.