Transition arrangements, transformation and what might prudently be left alone …

Helen Attewell, Chief Executive of Nepacs, a voluntary sector organisation working with prisoners and their families in the North East blogs about the fragmentation of joined up working with young adults and the need for a whole system response.

Clinks and Nepacs recently hosted a couple of round table events in Newcastle.  One session presented an inspirational vision from Max Rutherford of the Barrow Cadbury Trust and Jackie Lowthian of Social Justice Solutions on how young adults within the criminal justice system could be better supported in their transition to adulthood.

Much of the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) discussion was spent regretting the erosion of the strong working relationships between local Youth Offending Services and Probation Trusts which had formerly facilitated ‘warm handovers’ of young people into adult services.  There were some particularly striking examples of multi-agency good practice through the Integrated Offender Management teams. However, much of this work has now been fragmented through the creation of privately-owned Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and their separation from the National Probation Service (NPS).

It was pointed out that we need more join up, not less, since many of those young people who have committed crime have multiple issues to contend with – poverty, mental health, family breakdown, substance misuse problems and homelessness.  A strategic focus on young adults seems the best way to target scant resources on the cohort of people who not only are committing most crime, but are also at high risk of reoffending and potentially about to embark on a lifetime career in crime.  It seems that England and Wales are almost unique in defining 18 year olds as ‘adults’.  In most other European countries, adulthood in criminal justice terms is 21, and it is acknowledged that maturity rates can vary between individuals.

Staff on the ground are doing their best to keep ‘joined up’ between juvenile and adult systems, but we questioned who might give the strategic lead on this issue within the North East region?  Was it NOMS, YJB, Local Criminal Justice Boards or Community Safety Partnerships?  The consensus was that Police and Crime Commissioners were best placed to champion this agenda as a way of minimising new entrants to the system as well as reducing reoffending and potentially creating fewer victims. Let’s hope we can persuade them to take up the challenge!

The session on the Taylor Review celebrated the successes of the Youth Offending Services in contributing towards a steep drop in the number of children in custody.  Prevention is always better than cure, and investment in a range of diversionary activities and services which address the root causes of the problem rather than criminalising young people will have a huge pay off in terms of reductions in cost to the public purse as well as less human misery.

Where children have committed crimes which are so severe that a custodial sentence is deemed necessary, the group welcomed the notion of smaller, more locally-based establishments with a focus on education.  How ironic then, to discover that although the juvenile estate might become more specialised, there are proposals to abolish the Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) which currently hold 18-21 year olds, and absorb those prisoners into adult jails.   Yet these are the people identified as needing extra help through their transition to adulthood.

This proposal would be a particular loss for the North East, where although HMYOI Deerbolt is subject to many of the challenges faced across the prison estate (reductions in staffing, unpredictable legal highs etc.) it remains a beacon of good practice.  Successes include the work of the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team (DART) and the work on diversity, including support for young people from travelling backgrounds.  Nepacs has pioneered family support at the jail over the past five years, developing parenting courses, special family visits, work with new fathers, and recently establishing a ‘Dads and Dads to be’ wing, where family becomes the focus of the collective identity of the residents, rather than ‘drug user’ or ‘gang member’.  This ground breaking needs-led work funded by the Big Lottery has provided opportunities for transformative change for many young individuals, who might be completely lost within a big Category B local jail.

My take home message was that we need to submit evidence to the Select Committee on Young Adult Offenders to make sure that a bad situation for young adults in prison isn’t made much worse.  A stark reminder of how important it is to get this right was the report that there has been a sudden sharp rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths of young people in adult jails in recent months.  Colleagues at Deerbolt reported that although none of the young people in their care had killed themselves, sadly, there were a number of instances where this had happened when they were transferred into the adult estate.

It was also pointed out that if young offenders are treated as adults at age 18, then why are they not entitled to the same levels of housing benefits, Job Seeker’s Allowance and Minimum Wage as adults?  So many contradictory policies and such high levels of need.