Youth Justice: the prison governor’s view

One of the most powerful pieces of learning for me during 34 years of being in and out of custodial establishments is the capacity of their residents to respond to opportunities; to being appreciated and congratulated for work well done; to being respected for doing something worthwhile. It is the realisation that this might have been their first experience of any of this that initially takes the breath away, and always disturbs. Although, therefore, Governors have to concern themselves with secure and safe custody and, yes, maximising resources to provide opportunities for offenders in their custody, and doing what they can to facilitate effective discharge and resettlement, they can be forgiven for worrying also about why they end up with a custodial sentence in the first place.

Custody is expensive and sometimes destructive – if only because it can disrupt lives of offenders and their families. Many of course have committed offences of violence so serious that incarceration for the sake of public safety is essential. Very many others have been sentenced to custody because of lack of suitable alternative non-custodial sentences, rather than their threat to the community per se. A truly progressive society, in looking to reduce its use of incarceration, needs to look back beyond alternative ways of dealing with offenders to ways of preventing offending in the first place, and ensuring that adequate opportunities for all young people to lead useful lives exist and are encouraged.

Liberal Democrats who have concerned themselves with development of party Youth Justice Policy can take some credit for the recent Sentencing and Rehabilitation Green Paper’s capture of significant proposals flowing from Lib Dem principles and policies. Central is the desire to reduce use of custody – not only for young people but all offenders. “How to prevent offending”; “Diverting (young people) from entering into a life of crime”. “Intervening early in the lives of children at risk, and their families, before behaviour becomes entrenched, can present our best chance to break the cycle of crime”. A welcome change of emphasis from decades of preoccupation with punishment; and the custody fetish. And the economics of justice is not overlooked. The Green Paper observes: “Preventing crime by young people is one of the most cost-effective ways to provide long-term benefit for communities”. But delivery of these aspirations is not cost-free; and here lies the rub. The reality is that there seems to be insufficient money to assure even adequate provision of non-custodial sentence disposals, let alone new investment to support vulnerable communities. Worse, cuts are already seeing retraction of youth services, sports and community centres, public spaces, police resources, housing, employment, education, training and other relevant resources in the medium term at least.

It might be my imagination, but my print of a not very old Lib Dem Youth policy document seems
almost sepia-tinted. For young people “to have something to do and somewhere to go” ; for “Youth Services (to be ) a statutory responsibility for local authorities to ensure it is not the first service to be cut when money is tight” ; to “encourage councils to draw up Youth Community Plans to ensure there are more youth activities, particularly in deprived areas”. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have found ourselves part of a Coalition Government with money to spend?!) The evidence of these social issues being key to drift into offending is legion, and well documented; as is the fact that it is the countries with the strongest social policies that need/ have the lightest criminal justice investment as a consequence. It is hoped that local policies to limit damage, prayer, and a happening Big Society will carry the country through until the finance to transform our most acutely-disadvantaged and crime-fuelling communities is available once more; but the risk meanwhile of an increased flow of people into the CJ system as a result of retraction of social policy funding is real.

To limit damage, an immediate priority should be for Local Authorities to be sure to include risk assessment for potential effect upon crime rates when deliberating over where the axe should fall.

In the longer term the future is probably to develop momentum with taking justice as close to communities as possible, so that they take ownership of most offending and offenders and, crucially, how best to spend finite resources on reducing offending and punishment.

And one day? Strong, safe, just, supportive communities in which social exclusion is the enemy and opportunity the friend; with the way led by the Liberal Democrats.

Paul Tidall is President of the Prison Governor’s Association and is a member of the Home Affairs Justice and Equality Parliamentary Committee.

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