Children first justice: An agenda for change
By Admin, Jan 25 2018 04:09PM
Youth justice in England and Wales needs a vigorous shake-up – not a radical overhaul, but a shake-up. Many of the essential building blocks are already in place, including progressive professional attitudes and practice cultures. With this in mind, the time has come for children first justice. The perfect storm of economic and political uncertainty, ironically, has created the space and opportunity for rethinking youth justice and encouraging new frameworks for practice. Children first justice is ideally suited to this purpose. Existing youth justice is untenable.
What doesn’t work
The Youth Justice System (YJS) has over 20 years of policy, practice and research experience indicating that punitive and risk-based approaches do not work. These approaches label and marginalise children, restrict and disengage practitioners, portray policymakers and politicians as uncaring and detached (Case 2018). However, with some notable exceptions, these same youth justice professionals and politicians are trying hard to help and support children (along with saving money and protecting the public). But they are being handicapped by ill-conceived strategy. Punitiveness and the risk paradigm have had their day in the sun. The youth justice powers that be (e.g. Youth Justice Board/YJB, Ministry of Justice/MoJ, HMI Probation/HMIP, this week’s Justice Minister) need to let these approaches fade away. Forget superficial claims to effectiveness, efficiency and economy. Any effectiveness measured through ‘key performance indicators’ (especially falls in first-time entrants and custody rates) is largely attributable to a couple of influences bearing no relation to the risk paradigm:
1) changes in systemic activities – perhaps most notably the abolition of police ‘Offences Brought to Justice’ targets, but also an increasing emphasis upon diversion locally and nationally;
2) local mediation of centralised policy prescriptions - for example, the localised use of diversion before it became obligatory, an increasing focus on the well-being of children who offend and using custody as a last resort.
In addition, the long-standing inability to reduce ‘reoffending rates’ is a damning indictment of the ineffectiveness of the risk paradigm and the redundancy and inappropriateness of using reoffending ‘rates’ as a key performance indicator in the first place. Furthermore, the risk paradigm is neither efficient nor economical - it drowns practitioners in paperwork and mires children in the YJS for disproportionate lengths of time, during which they can be further criminalised, stigmatised and disengaged - a textbook argument for diversion! The risk paradigm is anti-child, doesn’t work and should be killed off, yet its insidious influence persists. For a system so risk averse, it certainly isn’t averse to risk.
We know better
The continued obsession with risk is inexplicable for a YJS that knows better and is under constant pressure to do better. As key stakeholders, we know what is wrong with the risk paradigm in practical, methodological and ethical terms; after all, these criticisms underpinned the rationale for abolishing the Scaled Approach and introducing AssetPlus (Baker 2014). We also know what type of progressive (child-friendly, non-punitive, anti-risk) philosophies, strategies and practices we should implement, as these now have large and cogent evidence bases internationally and at home. Look no further than Surrey’s ‘Youth Support Service’, Oldham’s ‘Positive Steps’ initiative, the work of the ‘Greater Manchester Youth Justice Partnership’, Cheshire’s ‘DIVERT’ program and the Welsh ‘Bureau’ model(Case 2018). The critique of the Scaled Approach and this evidence-base for progressive practice is why AssetPlus focuses on desistance, strengths, practitioner discretion and relationship-building; why LASPO 2012 reintroduced diversion through a new out-of-court sentencing process; why the YJB has a Participation Strategy to build practice relationships with children. More broadly, we know that the YJS cannot continue to label and punish children who offend or to work in isolation to address children’s needs and problems. This is why the National Strategy for the Policing of Children and Young People (2015) is ‘child centred’; why the Welsh youth justice strategy (2014) is ‘Children and Young People First’; why the Taylor Review (2016) recommended an integrated, diversionary and ‘children first’ system; why the Sentencing Council (2017) recommended non-criminalising and welfare-based sentencing for children who offend. It is also why the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, a campaigning body with membership from over 50 academic, policy and practice organisations, advocates for ‘a child-focused youth justice system’. In this respect, recognising children first justice is pushing against an open door. But policy isn’t practice.
The need to respond to risk
Progressive policy intent is seriously undermined by the insidious and misguided promotion of the risk paradigm. Since the Taylor Review, nothing of note has happened to move the YJS any closer to its positive recommendations, other than the appointment of the author himself to chair the YJB. Conversely, over the same period, the MoJ has published the report, ‘What works in managing young people who offend’ (Adler 2016), which is entirely founded on programmes meeting the ‘Risk-Needs-Responsivity’ (RNR) model: measuring risk of reoffending, addressing ‘criminogenic needs’ (risk factors) and being responsive (in interventions) to the need for relationship-building and promoting children’s strengths (similar to AssetPlus). I argue strongly that this is a regressive step because the positive features of responsivity (relationship-building, strengths focus) are contradictory to the negative risk-needs focus, which disengages and stigmatise children, largely through adult-centric, tick-box and deficit-focused assessment practice. The YJB has reinforced the risk focus in successive briefings focused on reducing reoffending (YJB 2016). And preventing offending (YJB 2017), asserting that there is ‘strong evidence about risk factors for offending’. This is simply not true. The risk paradigm evidence-based is a monolithic, methodologically-dubious and harmful self-fulfilling prophecy (Case and Haines 2009). It is worrying that the powers that be have reverted to uncritical support for the risk paradigm (in the guise of RNR), when the introduction of AssetPlus and new diversion processes indicated a move away from (although not necessarily abandonment of) such negative excesses.
There appears to be deep-rooted confusion and misunderstanding regarding the central planks of youth justice policy and practice, particularly around the concept of prevention, which is the main objective of the YJS. This confusion and misunderstanding restricts progression. Let me address the main areas in which prevention has been misunderstood:
• Prevention need not be risk-focused - even when targeted and individualised, prevention practice can focus on addressing children’s needs, wishes, rights, strengths and opportunities, rather than necessarily emphasising risk factors. To this extent, the prevention of negative behaviours/outcomes (e.g. re/offending) need not be the limit of youth justice ambition - we can prioritise the promotion of positive behaviours/outcomes through promotional, prosocial approaches that have been evidenced to simultaneously support traditional prevention goals (Haines and Case 2015);
• Desistance is more than prevention – AssetPlus provides the space for practitioners to pursue the promotion of positive behaviours/outcomes, strengths and foundations for change (e.g. in behaviour, attitudes, identity) as pivotal to the desistance process. However, lack of understanding of and training relating to desistance (not to mention engagement), an overwhelming focus on process and the emphasis on ‘risk-reducing’ activities within HMIP inspection criteria has encouraged practitioners (especially those with limited experience) to revert to ‘business as usual’ - targeting criminogenic needs/risk factors and prioritising the prevention of negative behaviours (see Hampson 2017). Thus, the risk paradigms provides a fall-back position, but sidesteps more progressive intent to foster strong, engaging relationships with children and build on their strengths and capacities (e.g. through motivational interviewing, empathy building, applying the Good Lives Model);
• Diversion is more than prevention - diversion from offending and from YJS processes can serve prevention goals. However, diversion is much more than this. Diversion into other systems and into positive behaviours/outcomes should be the priority of the out-of-court system; prevention outcomes will occur as a by-product (n.b. exactly the same argument could be made about ‘early intervention’, a concept regularly and wrongly conflated with prevention);
The YJS seems reticent to let go of its risk-focused prevention agenda. There is clearly much brand loyalty and vested interest around this agenda. Much time, effort and money has been invested into its development. But loyalty and investment are no reason to resist change, let alone reason to continue to promote a risk agenda so clearly anathema to progressive intent. The recommended children first justice paradigm offers a pragmatic alternative to risk – one founded in promoting positive behaviours/outcomes, the implementation of diversion desistance approaches positive goals and more holistic processes of assessment and intervention that place ‘children first’ in our understandings of offending (Haines and Case 2015). A move to children first justice necessitates a change of perspective and a change of policy and practice culture - a move away from the risk paradigm and prevention obsession. Many youth justice professionals, YOTs and third sector organisations already practice much of what is being preached here.
Many youth justice professionals agree with the central principles of children first justice, including the chair of the YJB and certain amongst the new board members who have been pursuing this approach in their work for a number of years. Yet centralised practice requirements and recommendations continue to hamstring progress. If the ambition of children first justice is to be realised, then the YJB and HMIP must ensure that their work is more deeply grounded in youth justice practice, policy and academic expertise. In particular, there is a need to work with experts to establish clear, consistent understandings of central concepts and practical, progressive pathways to their implementation. The recent appointment of a new raft of YJB board members, many of whom offer such expertise, is a welcome step towards this. The time has come to formalise children first justice recommendations in policy and strategy, giving youth justice professionals the permission, time and space to (continue to) pursue and expand the children first perspectives and practices that they already subscribe to the local level.
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