In the Media

Youth custody is failing young people who want to change their ways

PUBLISHED February 14, 2012

Dismal reoffending rates prove that incarcerated children who want to live a 'normal' life aren't being given the support to do so

Two boys died in youth custody last month. It's a reminder that we reserve our most dangerous and violent jails for children.

The kids' secure estate is dominated by young offender institutions and secure training centres. Last year, of the quarter of a million children arrested, only 4,000 were given custodial sentences. It is incredible, then, that they managed 1,500 incidents of self-harming and a further 3,500 incidents of violence.

The public mistakenly believes that once kids get into the secure estate they are rescued. Yet the interventions designed to help them are frequently unscientific and rarely successful. The children themselves confirm this.

Work carried out by my charity User Voice has shown that young people who had hoped to gain an education inside rarely did so. In a disorganised system, they would be sent on the same course again and again, or the course they wanted would be unavailable. Those who felt ready for GCSEs found the education provided was too often primary school level. They wanted qualifications, they said, because these might lead them to jobs (despite their criminal record) and jobs were important. More than half of the young offenders we spoke to were clear about what they wanted in the long term: the same as everyone else ? a job, a family, a home.

But if violence and self-harm statistics and the statements of the children themselves is not enough to prove how ineffective our incarceration system is, there is no better testament to its failure than the dismal reoffending rates. Between 69% and 79% of the children we incarcerate reoffend within a year. The psychologists who assess the children for recognised risk factors have easily discerned that the more risk factors, the higher the chance of reoffending.

The same psychologists reveal that a quarter of the children in the youth justice system have been abused, a third have experienced significant bereavement, a quarter have been involved with mental health services. I wish they spent less time assessing the kids and predicting their descent and a bit more time treating them.

If a child from a wealthy, educated family had drug or alcohol problems after experiencing abuse, bereavement or mental health difficulties, his family would try to intercept his fall. There would be shrinks and rehab centres lined up to save him, and the family would devote resources to this. Children from the "underclass" don't have those options.

The youth justice system is the last net, and could stop them from crashing to the ground. Instead, they are denied the proper support and rehabilitation they need. And their criminal records then exclude them from the jobs and income they aspire to.

There is one other face of children's incarceration. Secure children's homes, local authority-run and divided into small units with a high ratio of staff to children, aim to meet children's educational and therapeutic needs. They mimic as closely as possible what most kids in trouble lack: a caring, guiding family home.

Guess what? The long-term economics of giving these children such support conflicts with the short-term political imperative to save money. Most are closing. Only 183 children of the 2,000 incarcerated at any one time have a place in secure homes, and more cuts are planned. The rest are abandoned to a system that costs the government less today, but all of us ? including the children ? far more tomorrow.

? Mark Johnson, a rehabilitated offender and former drug user, is an author and the founder of the charity User Voice © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds