There has been a small but disappointing increase in the average number of young people up to the age of 18 being held in custody over the past eighteen months. Although the figures from April 2016 to February this year are provisional, they show the first upturn in annual average numbers held in detention since 2007/08. The provisional number for 2017/18 to February was 996 compared with 3,208 in 2007/08 and an all-time high since 2000 of 3,235 reached in 2005/06 at the height of the New Labour Target Culture when young people were being criminalised at an alarming rate. The data is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/youth-custody-data
Sadly, with the increase in knife violence witnessed recently, I suspect that the average number of young people in custody will only continue to increase over the short-term. Youngster from London make up by far the largest number from any one region, accounting for a quarter of the total of young people locked up in February 2018. By contrast, only 25 young people from Wales and 32 from the South West were being held in custody.
The change in policy on remands in custody for young people some years ago means that in February this year only 216, or about 20% of the total population in youth custody, were on remand. That may well still be too high a number, but there are still some serious crimes where custody following charge may be inevitable for public protection. If you add the total serving sentences for serious offences that will likely transfer into the adult prison estate when they are old enough to the remand population this group totals about 500 of the 870 under 18s in custody. There are fewer than 400 of this age group on Detention and Training Orders, almost the lowest number since well before 2000.
Only 28 of the under-18s in custody were classified as female, down from a peak of 241 in August 2007. This is approaching a 90% reduction, a percentage not achieved for the adult female prison population during the same period. Proportionally the number of BAME (Asian, Black, Mixed and Other) young people in custody has not declined in line with the reduction in the number recorded as White, so that in February 2018 there were 470 young people in custody classified as White and 385 as BAME compared with 1,754 White and 778 BAME in custody in August 2008.
The Youth Justice Board had not commissioned any bed space in the Eastern Region and only had nine custody bed spaces in use in the North East Region. The 137 beds in the London Region are almost certainly not enough to allow young people to be kept in custody close to home. The same will almost certainly be true for the small number of young women in custody. Regular visits are very important to those in custody and their families and this can be a real issue now that numbers in custody are so much lower than a decade ago.
We must aim to ensure numbers in custody are as low as possible and that sentence lengths take into account the mental and physical age of the young person committing the crime as well as the seriousness of the offence. Ensuring their continued education and training and mental well-being are also important factors to take into account while in custody.
More than 13,000 children taken into care in the last financial year were placed outside of their local authority area. Some will have had relatively short-term placements, but for the majority of school age children taken into care, this can mean some disruption to their schooling. Data on the effects of being taken into care on time away from education isn’t published by the DfE in their tables associated with Statistical First Release 50/2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/children-looked-after-in-england-including-adoption-2016-to-2017
I would hope that in the future this issue might be better researched, since these are a highly vulnerable group of young people. Regular readers of this blog will recall that after the general election, all six of Oxfordshire’s MPs wrote to the Minister about the problems of in-year enrolment of children taken into care and requiring a change of school. I would hope that officials and the charities concerned with the welfare of these children will look at what is happening, as only yesterday I heard of a school employing a solicitor to challenge any request from another local authority for a place in the school for a child in care.
This issue needs attention because being taken into care must not be the start of a slippery slope towards a life of crime and marginalisation by Society. It is welcome news that the number of children taken into care and subsequently sentenced to custody fell in the latest year the data are available for from 500 to 410, but this is still way too high, and above the 370 custodial sentence sin 2013.
Sadly, the number of care leavers between 19-21 in custody in the latest figures remains just over the 1,000 mark, with similar numbers in each of the three age groups. Many of these young people will be well on the way to a long period of criminal behaviour and a revolving door syndrome of prison punctuated by short periods of unsuccessful life in the community. There is a growing recognition that these days looking after young people up to the age of 25 is more sensible than casting them adrift at eighteen. However, this does demand more resources and even more investment for these young people that are in a fight for resources with many other groups.
Sadly, only 50% of care leavers are in education, training or employment, leaving the other half of the group either as NEETs or without a known destination. The rate of pregnancy is seven per cent nationally. There are examples of these young mothers subsequently going on to complete their education and flourish where they are provided with care and support; others perpetuate the cycle of mothers with children taken into care. The percentage in higher education is still very low at well under 10% compared to a 40-50% for the age group as a whole.
A shortage of resources must not be allowed to blight the lives of young people taken into care and after they leave as young adults. Schools, especially, must help to play a part in working with this group. As we approach the Christmas season, these children must not find there is no room for them in our schools.
One of the more impressive statistics of the past few years has been the reduction in the number of young people held in custody. For much of the first decade of this century the average number of children and young people held in custody (including 18 year-olds) averaged around the 3,000 mark for England and Wales. The peak year was 2002/03 when the average was 3,451. With a month to go in the 2012/13 financial year the latest figures show that the average number in custody is now down to 1,755 almost exactly half the average in the peak year a decade ago.
Even more impressive is the decline in the 10-14 age group held in custody, down from a peak of 236 in July 2005 to 54 in February 2013. The decline in the 14-17 age-groups in custody has been from a peak of 2,885 in June 2008 to 1,266 this February. These figures can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-custody-data along with other useful data for those interested in the topic of youth custody. For instance, only 52 of those held in secure institutions are females compared with 1,268 young males. Some 765 of the young population are classified as ‘White’ compared with 506 from the BME and ‘other’ classifications. The reduction in the ‘White’ population in youth custody from a peak of over 2,000 has been much steeper than for the BME and ’other’ group where the peak was less than 800. There are clearly questions to be asked about the differential rate of decline in the custody population by ethnic group. One explanation may be geographic since 389 of the custody population come from London, the most racially mixed part of the country with the other urban areas outside of the North East also over-represented. One disappointing statistics is that 281 of the young people in custody were on remand. However, if the census was taken on a Friday it may be a proportion of these were on ‘warrants’ awaiting an appearance at a Saturday remand court. However, even this number is well down on the peak of almost 700 recorded in June 2008.
Hopefully, keeping these young people out of custody will also reduce the revolving door where one custodial sentence invariably leads on to another, especially for those handed down sentences of six months or less where support after custody is often insufficient if not non-existent.
Schools have a part to play in reducing exclusions since a large proportion of those in custody were as some point excluded from school. It may be no accident that youth custody rates were at their highest when secondary schools in urban areas were struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of teachers. If there is a relationship between sufficient teachers and a reduction in youth crime then the DfE would do well to ensure we don’t slide towards another teacher supply crisis in the next couple of years.