Although we had all been hoping to see the final report from Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system by early July, an article posted on 29 June by Children & Young People Now has suggested that its timetable may now be delayed pending the appointment of a new Prime Minister. The interim report published in February gave us some early indications of Taylor’s intended direction of travel, mainly focused on his widely welcomed ideas to replace the current youth custody estate with smaller secure school units, with an emphasis on education rather than security. We will now have to wait and see if any delay substantially alters this intention.
Education, education, education… It got not just three but thirty mentions in the interim report. (I counted them!) And while nobody would deny that education is of key importance in helping young people get out of trouble and into worthwhile training and employment, what about the importance of relationship? That’s a word that got not a single mention in the interim report, yet all the recent messages from research, from practice, from the probation inspectorate and from young people themselves have emphasised the central importance of relationship to young people’s desistance.
Interestingly, at the same time as it published Charlie Taylor’s interim report, the Ministry of Justice published a summary of international evidence on what works in managing young people who offend. This concluded that the most successful interventions to reduce reoffending among young people: were based on skilled assessment; considered the needs and strengths of the individual and their ability to respond to the intervention; drew on a combination of skills training and cognitive behavioural intervention approaches, rather than deploying mainly punitive or surveillance-based programmes; took account of the wider offending context, such as family, peers and community issues; employed a broad range of interventions that addressed a number of offending related risks; and made sure communication between staff and young people was strengthened through mutual understanding, respect, and fairness. In other words, successful interventions were rooted in the workers’ use of their professional skills and empathy to forge an effective relationship with the young person.
These messages from research were further confirmed by the probation inspectorate’s thematic inspection on desistance and young people, published on 24th May and brilliantly summarised by Russell Webster in his recent blog.
When interviewed by HM Inspectorate of Probation, young people who had given up crime identified a number of aspects which had helped them move away from offending:
- A balanced, trusting and consistent working relationship with at least one worker
- meaningful personal relationships and a sense of belonging to family
- emotional support, practical help and where the worker clearly believed in the capacity of the child or young person to desist from offending
- the development of a strong relationship and/or becoming a parent
- changing peer and friendship groups
- interventions which provided problem solving solutions in real-life situations
- well planned and relevant restorative justice interventions.
Less helpful to their efforts at desistance were:
- formal offending behaviour programmes that did not meet their individual needs
- poor relationships with case managers or frequent changes of case manager
- their identified needs not being addressed
- a lack of genuine involvement with their case manager in planning for work to reduce reoffending
- objectives in plans not being personalised to their assessed needs.
These were messages that Clinks and our partners heard time and again when we held consultation events with voluntary sector organisations, and with young people who had experience of the youth justice system, to inform our recent submission to the Taylor Review.
Event participants thought the high level of churn in youth justice-related professions (for example officers in youth custody, Youth Offending Team (YOT) workers and social workers) due to low pay, poor training, high caseloads and excessive bureaucracy, meant that staff were often inexperienced and could not develop long-term relationships with the young people they worked with. Recent budget cuts to YOTs, combined with the requirements of government policy and Youth Justice Board guidance, were also believed to have resulted in workers now spending too much time on risk assessments and other paperwork, leaving them with limited time to spend directly with young people and restricting their flexibility to work with families or in community environments.
Young people talked a lot in their own events (convened by Nacro and Peer Power in partnership with Clinks) about the lack of continuity and trust in their relationships with workers. Many said they were tired of having to tell their story repeatedly and felt this encouraged them to focus on past trauma rather than a more hopeful future…
“Building trust takes ages… it can take a long time to get to know someone and open up, especially about personal things. That trust takes seconds to crumble. When new workers come in and go all the time it’s hard.”
“I had someone… and they left! They keep leaving… why am I going to make the effort with a new person when they keep going?”
Overall it seems clear that supporting young people’s desistance requires the application of professional skills and empathy to build meaningful, consistent, long-term relationships with them, and that this is the essential foundation on which other interventions to support their desistance, including education, are built.
While we wait to see if the review emerges unscathed from the current political uncertainty that surrounds it, I for one am therefore hoping to find a rather different emphasis in Charlie Taylor’s final report – one that recognises the importance of relationship as well as education and, as the probation inspectorate has urged, supports the professional training and development of staff to take ‘greater account of desistance theory; including measures to promote genuinely collaborative working with children and young people, and working with their key personal, social and community networks’.