What next for the youth justice system?

Keith Fraser describes the achievements of youth justice and his thoughts on what the future may hold for system after 25 years

Keith Fraser


I’d like to pay my own tribute to these achievements before I go on to talk about some of the challenges we’re facing and what the future might look like for youth justice.

First of all, we’ve heard from other about the strength of the partnership, and that is absolutely right. Whether you call it the ‘jewel in the crown’ like Lord McNally or the ‘critical beauty’ like Charlie Taylor, multi-disciplinary teams are the backbone of the success of youth justice services and I am 100% committed to protecting and encouraging that element. I know we’re still a way off but I am really excited by the opportunity to use new KPIs to hold partners to account and ensure the children and communities you’re supporting have the benefit of each partner’s expertise and resources.

Although we can all recognise that we could always do more with more money, we should acknowledge that this time last year government announced £300m being invested over three years in youth justice. It was described as the largest youth justice funding boost in a generation. At a time when there are a great number of areas in need of funds, we can be proud that youth justice has successfully made the case for investment. Part of that investment, of course, has meant vast changes to the YJB’s operating model to provide the level of performance oversight that is demanded of such an investment in services, and I would like to thank you for your patience and support of our change programme so far.

So onto the numbers…

In the latest annual figures, around 8000 children entered the criminal justice system for the first time. This is more than 100,000 fewer children than 2006, where the highest first-time entrant figure was recorded.

It’s not possible to accurately predict what these number would look like without that drive to keep children out of the system. Very crudely (and certainly not with the approval of our stats team) one could argue that if rates continued at 2006 levels there would be up to 1.2million more first-time entrants in the system.

Custodial sentences have seen an equally impressive reduction – going from 7,485 to 553 over 20 years. I was pleased to hear many of the previous Chairs highlight this achievement as one to be proud of. We all know the custodial estate in its current form is not the right place for complex, traumatised children to heal, change and develop a pro-social identity and it’s in the face of this realisation that this reduction is all the more important.

Again, it’s not possible to apply the ‘what-if’ comparison accurately, but I think what we can say for sure is that there are many more children, and adults, in our communities today who are doing amazing things and reaching their potential because they were not held back by a criminal record, or traumatised by time in prison, or stigmatised by a court appearance, and, perhaps for the first time, they had a caring adult ensure they had the support they so desperately needed. And much of that success is down to many of you in the room. Thank you.

The final two of the system indicators that we have been using up until now look at reoffending.

We have 15 years of data in this area and as you can see, reoffending rates and frequency rates haven’t dropped in the same way as first time entrants and custodial sentences. As the number of first-time entrants has rightly reduced, we all recognise that the statutory caseload for youth justice services is made up of children whose needs and backgrounds are almost always incredibly complex and require long term support.

The future

So, given all these achievements over the last 25 years, what does the future look like?

Over the next few years there are some key milestones and challenges for us to be aware of:

Central government policy decisions

We know there will be an election at some point in the next two years. For those of you who have been following politics and justice for as long as I have you will know that there are many pressures to side-line the evidence of what works in favour of more short-term and potentially punitive approaches which can more quickly appease public anxiety but that don’t actually solve the issue. This is something I hope we will all work together to guard against.

The government will need to respond to the latest report from the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child. I don’t think this government is willing to move on the age of criminal responsibility but there are areas where there is an appetite and progress is already being made, such as around early intervention.

When questioned last week by YJB senior leaders on the use of prevention and diversion I was pleased to hear the Lord Chancellor’s response which said we must continue to support and divert children, be led by the evidence and data as, in his works, ‘there is treasure in the heart of every child’.

Another big decision that will need to surface again is the grant funding formula. The YJB is still committed to change and a fairer system of funding which directs funding to those children and communities that need it most, and we will continue to raise the need to revisit this in subsequent financial years.

Another area where policy will have ramifications for the immediate and longer-term future is around the transition to young adulthood. For many years the evidence has been clear on brain maturity and the argument for a more bespoke system for young adults has been made, but it is not for that reason entirely that we have seen an increase in 18-year-olds reach the caseload of youth justice services (YJSs).

As the prison population swells, I am aware of the pressure that is being leaked into the youth secure estate and onto YJSs. This is, of course, exacerbated by probation service recruitment issues. You will soon receive a letter which outlines these issues and what the probation service is doing to improve the situation. We should remain unapologetic about our focus on the needs of children, so while there are challenges in the rest of the system, our role is to push for the best outcomes for children.

As always, we’d welcome the views of services on what a long term and realistic solution looks like to probation support.

We are already seeing the effects of the police uplift, not that there are simply more officers, but also the reality of the challenge of having a less experienced police service where a third of officers have less than 5 years of service.

In some areas we are concerned that this may lead to more children being drawn into the youth justice system. In itself, this will not improve community safety and may, in the longer term, be ineffective as we know that children who become involved in the criminal justice system are more likely to commit offences as adults.

From my own experience, there are some positives to having new officers, such as fresh ideas and perspectives, but at this volume it can make prioritising prevention and diversion a bigger challenge so we need to think carefully about how we support the police to use the evidence we have about what works in youth justice, so they use their additional resources in a smart way, whilst balancing protecting the public.

In conjunction with this we also have longer sentences available through the PCSC Act and court backlogs being worked through which point towards more children in the system and in custody.

Local / regional decisions

There are also decisions being grappled with outside of central government which will have wide ranging ramifications for the shape of the system

The Commission on the UK’s Future, commissioned by Labour, recommends that, if in power, Labour should grant new powers to the Senedd and Welsh Governments, including embarking upon new powers over youth justice and the probation service.

Localism continues to offer opportunities to make more economic decisions locally and discussions around regional delegation in areas like Manchester and the West Midlands provide us with both risks and opportunities to consider.

As local authorities struggle to balance budgets against rising costs, I’m sure many will consider which services could be integrated to save costs. I am in no way opposed to children’s services and youth justice being intertwined, in fact, we all know that seamless partnership is important for many reasons, but youth justice is a necessary specialism with skills that are not ubiquitous in children’s services. And I would strongly guard against integration on the basis of cost saving alone.

Workforce challenges, although perhaps enviable to the challenges in adult probation, should not be played down. Youth justice has benefited greatly from the corporate knowledge of those who have dedicated many years to the cause and we should be thinking about the effects of some of those leaders coming up to retirement alongside how we maintain a pipeline of staff of all different levels and backgrounds into the profession. And, we must ensure we have diversity at the top, in particular ensuring talented Black and ethnic minority staff are being supported to reach their potential within our organisations.

Evidence and data

On data first of all, there has been a huge shift in the data we are asking youth justice services to collect. It recognises the need to have more data on the breadth of work you are doing to prevent and divert children from the system and also the need to understand how the full partnership is or isn’t contributing to children’s outcomes.

As first-time entrant figures inevitably plateau, we have a challenge to find other ways of communicating the success of the system. I’m confident that KPIs should help with that and also allow us to demand the presence of all partners around the table

On evidence, firstly I would like to make the firm commitment that the YJB will continue to be an organisation which is led by evidence. We are currently reviewing our strategy and the evidence base of what works, or Child First if you prefer that label, will continue to be the driving factor.

I would also like us to go further with the evidence. When it comes to research and evidence, especially in the realm of over-representation, there is a saturation of papers or studies or headlines which describe to us that there is a problem. We know there is a problem. There has been a problem – the same problem – for decades. We must not complacent and think that we fully understand the problem. But, the next step for us must be understanding what works to reduce and eliminate that over-representation so we can take action that really makes a difference.

The other priority for the system is defining how we measure positive outcomes. If we are to follow strengths-based approaches in our practice, we must be better at measuring based on strengths and positive outcomes. That’s not to say we ignore the data that tells us things are going wrong, but that we also consider a shift in identity or a growing confidence.

Wider concerns and room for change

In addition to priorities around evidence and challenges in the unknowns of decision making I’d also like to raise concerns in four areas.

Firstly, there is huge scope for improvement within our court system for children and we’ll be looking more closely at what longer term strategic and system reforms to better meet the needs of the 10-18 age group might look like. We’ll be looking at that as part of this year’s business plan. We’ll then have the much harder task of influencing to make those changes happen.

Secondly, policing. We will continue to support the child-centred policing approach and will focus mainly on the three areas of work identified by last year’s work with children and stakeholders. They are: police in schools, the use of out of court disposals and the detention of children.

Thirdly, education. There is a clear role for education in prevention and we remain concerned about children missing, being excluded from education, or being electively home educated as well as the system’s ability to meet the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities.

And lastly, we have significant concerns with serious violence and the exploitation of children. Growing inequality, poverty, rising costs of living, the influence of social media and a health service under pressure all contribute to my fears that exploitation and serious violence will remain intractable issues. We will work with YJS as well as other key partners like the Youth Endowment Fund, Police and Crime Commissioners and Violence Reduction Units to ensure we’re collectively tackling the issues and following the evidence and in particular we’re looking closely at the serious violence duty and the new local serious violence boards.

We’re currently working on our next three-year strategy and as part of that we are giving thought to what the system is achieving now, what works well and what need to be prioritise to see another 25 years progress for children. So I’ve been considering what my own thoughts are and…

  1. A full and total acceptance of the evidence
  2. A continued focus on early intervention and supporting evidence-based prevention and diversion projects, like the ground-breaking initiatives such as Levelling the Playing Field, which use the power of sport and physical activity to tackle over-representation of ethnic minority children in the justice system. I am keen to see the findings of this three-year evidence initiative.
  3. Real alternatives to custody, especially for children held on remand, and we are all rooting for the London Accommodation Pathfinder to successfully pilot its innovative approach
  4. The secure school absolutely has my best wishes and of course we all hope that it works for the children held there. I would like to see the model go further and faster to follow more closely what we know works – local, small units built around care and family values.
  5. Diversity of thought and experience throughout our workforce
  6. Smarter use of technology and a sector braced and ready for the impact of artificial intelligence on both us and the children we support
  7. Children must, of course, take responsibility for their actions and learn and grow, but they should not face a lifetime of stigma. We must change the life-long judgement that is made about the character of children who commit crime, in particular for Black children who are so often wrongly treated as adults.

I could go on for a long time about my hopes for the system, but I think best to leave you with those priorities and a parting thought.

99.6% of children do not become involved in the criminal justice system. Children are inherently curious, imaginative, and full of potential. For those who do reach our doors, we as a group, more than any, understand that it is adult failure that has led them to us.

You are often the leaders who break that pattern, who show up, who can be trusted, who have their best interests at heart but without the might of the police, health, probation, etc. behind you your task is not achievable.

I want to empower you to have the difficult conversations with those who are not showing up for these children. You have my support to demand more on behalf of your services and the communities you protect and the children you are working so hard to support. Please do not shy away from making those demands. Their involvement was made clear in the crime and disorder act 25 years ago and it remains law today. You have my full backing.

Thank you for everything you do and thank you for listening.

Youth Justice Board for England and Wales
Keith Fraser