Catch22, the charity and social business, has asked me to help them with a project aimed at improving outcomes for young people in custody. Catch22, like me, would much prefer a world where children were not detained and much of its work focuses on diverting young people away from the criminal justice system, through effective education, prevention and support. But until we succeed in shifting both young people’s outcomes and current justice policy then sadly some children, and particularly older teenagers, will end up in custody. This project is about making sure that when they do, this period of their lives is not simply a waste of their time and taxpayers’ money.
The policy imperative
The reason we’re doing this now is partly because Charlie Taylor’s review of the Youth Justice System (December 2016) created an opportunity for reform. Taylor found a few examples of excellent provision in our best ‘Secure Children’s Homes’ and plenty of professionals doing their best in difficult circumstances, but judged the establishments which house most young people in custody to be grossly inadequate. Young Offender Institutes (YOIs, which house over 600) and Secure Training Centres (housing around 200) were experiencing rising violence and self-harm, like many adult prisons. YOIs regularly failed to provide statutory minimum hours of education, in part because of increased use of segregation. Ten years on from the Corston Report into women in the justice system recommended smaller and separate accommodation for women, there are still girls in larger, non-segregated institutions, albeit only when they reach 17.
Taylor made a broad range of recommendations to reform the system, many of which were accepted by government. The one that has received the most attention – and arguably government backing – was to create a new form of custodial establishment focused on education in its broadest sense, dubbed the ‘Secure School’. Taylor developed some initial ideas for this model, including regarding its location (as close as possible to the communities young people come from), size (around 50-70 young people), and its educational approach (broad-based, aspirational, tailored to individuals).
The Government is looking to pilot two such schools in areas where there is currently a high demand for secure accommodation – and there is a strong desire to set things up quickly to take advantage of political support.
The changing operational context
Recent years have seen seismic shifts in the youth justice system. After significant increases in youth custody in the 90s and early 2000s, there has been a welcome and dramatic decline in the use of custody for young people. The number of children and young people sentenced to immediate custody has fallen by three quarter (74%). The number of first entrants into the criminal justice system has fallen by 85%. This shift, a result of policy changes as well as falling youth crime, has led to a number of establishments closing. And it has changed how establishments operate. The children and young people in custody are more likely to be those with the most challenging behaviour, higher levels of need, and further from family and community support. It’s a tough job.
Our objectives and approach
This project aims to improve outcomes for young people in custody by developing a new model focused on education and rehabilitation that is more effective, more human, and unlocks more capacity in society than existing services. It will build on the ideas set out in the Taylor review to create a high level ‘blueprint’ of what a new model could look like, and we’ll start thinking about how a version of this model could be implemented.
Young people need to be at the heart of any new model – so we are co-designing the model with young people with lived experience of custody. We also need to ensure that we are basing the new design, wherever possible on ‘what works’ and are engaging with experts from a wide range of fields. And we’re tapping into professional experience to ensure we don’t come up with whacky ideas that don’t work in practice – engaging those working in mental health, therapeutic communities, schools, secure settings, health and care professionals, architects and designers. Initially, this has meant me visiting a lot of different types of provision speaking to young people.
This need to tap into real experience is why I’m excited about working with Catch22. It has the educational expertise, gathered from running alternative provision schools. It understands the children’s social care system, and the complex world presented to care leavers. It has a strong history of progressing young people into positive next steps, through its apprenticeship and employment services. It delivers rehabilitative services in prisons and the community all across the country. Importantly to me, it understands that a safe and secure environment is created through trusted relationships and a strong culture, not by high walls and barbed wire. And I’ve known people in the organisation for a while and love their ethos and commitment.
There are many hard realities to confront in this type of work. I’m acutely aware that people have tried to create more educationally focused and effective secure establishments before and came up with the Secure Training Centres that are now subject to so much criticism. I’m also aware that custodial services are almost always less effective than similar services delivered in the community, so we need to avoid accidentally encouraging magistrates and judges from seeing custody as the place to send people to if they need more help. And we also know that while the policy currents look positive, churn in ministers and even governments might reduce the likelihood of change. There is a converse risk that government will decide what it wants quite soon, and that their approaches rules out more radical innovation.
We’ll need to keep all of these things in mind as the project progresses – and accept the risk that the work we do might not be harnessed for some time. Catch22 is a charity and has both a moral responsibility to help society, and a financial imperative to ensure all its funds are used wisely. If the winds shift too firmly against reform, we’ll need to stop before the blueprint is finished and share the thinking we’ve developed with others who might take it on at a later date while waiting for the tide to turn.
Call for help
This project will only succeed if it somehow captures the collective wisdom of those inside and outside the current system. I want to thank those of you who’ve already given up time to share their perspectives with me – and I’d love to hear from you if we haven’t spoken yet. I’ll try and share thinking as the work develops. Even if no model will please everybody, an idea that isn’t tested, isn’t worth the paper it’s written on…