Sarah Wilkinson, Beyond Youth Custody Programme Officer at Nacro, explains that a new way of working is needed to help young people leaving custody.
How can we best prepare young people for release from custody, provide on-going support through to the community and help them desist from crime? First we must look at the characteristics of the cohort of children and young adults who are in custody, the nature of youth incarceration and the implications this has on their resettlement.
Over the past decade, the numbers of children and young people in custody have been falling. In January 2015, the number of children in custody was 981. The first time on record the population has fallen below 1000. The young adult prison population has also fallen, but the trajectory has not been so marked as that for children.
This trend is welcome, but it poses new and significant challenges for services. Those sentenced to custody are more likely to display an entrenched pattern of offending behaviour. They’re more likely to have committed serious offences and have a higher concentration of problems.
Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. Over two thirds of children reoffend within 12 months of release from secure institutions. Reoffending rates are also substantially higher amongst young adults in the criminal justice system than older adult offenders.
Young people in custody have had complicated and chaotic lives. Many have experienced trauma, abuse, bereavement, grown up in local authority care, been excluded from school, experienced drug or alcohol related dependencies and have mental health problems or personality disorders.
Young people are increasingly isolated from family. The closure of some institutions and restructuring of the secure estate has meant some young offenders end up in custody a long way from home.
Gang-involvement is problematic. A recent inspection report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reported that Feltham young offenders’ institution was ‘rife with gang violence’ and called for new thinking about how to tackle the “debilitating and seemingly intractable” problem.
Support isn’t consistent between youth and adult systems. The transition from the youth justice system to the adult justice system further impacts on the consistency and quality of support provided and can cause young people to fall unsupported through the cracks.
Where appropriate support is available and agencies work together in a coordinated way, custody can provide young people with the interventions they need to overcome problems and start the process of building a better life. Central to this is making sure resettlement is the driving force of sentence planning and that the right resettlement services are in place for them in custody through to the community. All too often it isn’t. Services are patchy or poorly coordinated, too little attention is given to preparing young people for release and planning for resettlement doesn’t start early enough in their sentence – when it is most effective.
Building a lasting legacy for resettlement
Beyond Youth Custody’s (BYC) aim is to help young people turn around their lives by ensuring the right resettlement services are in place for them in custody and through to the community.
Our five-year programme works to establish an evidence base of effective practice that can be used to support a clear strategy for resettlement services.
- We focus on the following areas of work:
- Producing robust evidence about what works
- Giving young people a voice
- Developing and promoting good practice
- Identifying and communicating what needs to change in policy and practice
The scope of BYC extends to young adults leaving custody up to the age of 25. This allows us to capture insights from children and young adults who require a distinct approach; and understand better the transitions between different types of statutory provision, responsible agencies and relevant stakeholders.
What does effective resettlement look like?
Effective resettlement is a process that enables a shift in a young person’s identity, moving them away from crime towards a positive future. For resettlement to be effective and sustainable, we need to look ‘beyond’ criminal justice’s short-term aim of preventing reoffending.
There needs to be longer term understanding of resettlement as a process promoting desistance, wellbeing and social inclusion. Crucially, we must acknowledge that this may involve episodes of relapse as well as progress. This process can be facilitated by providing structural support as well as promoting a belief within the young person that they have the capacity to change.
Our research shows that for the resettlement process to be effective, it should be underpinned by the following principles:
- Co-ordination of services – Partners need to work collaboratively. Young people in custody have multiple and complex needs. They’ve frequently experienced trauma, victimisation, abuse and social injustice – all of which are commonly exacerbated by the experience of incarceration. The best way to meet these needs is to offer an individually tailored, wrap around package of support delivered by partners across sectors. However, the input of a wide range of agencies in itself is not enough. There needs to be proper coordination between custodial facilities and the community – between the statutory, voluntary, community and business sectors – and necessary information must be shared appropriately between them.
- Engaging the young person for positive change – relationships lie at the heart of successful engagement. Unless young people are engaged in the criminal justice process, resettlement is unlikely to be effective. Effective engagement and high quality, trusted relationships are crucial to enhance a young person’s motivation to make positive choices, stay in support programmes and build resilience to negative influencing factors. Engaging young people in resettlement activities is a challenging process. There are significant barriers that can impede engagement and these are frequently exacerbated by previous negative experiences of criminal justice agencies. Young people are more likely to engage with services if they share a mutual respect with staff and believe that staff care what happens to them. This means listening to young people and involving them in decisions about their own resettlement planning.
- Continuous service focused on resettlement. Preparation for release needs to start early. Resettlement is much more effective when young people are able to visit accommodation, arrange employment or education, meet providers of support services, and re-orientate themselves back into the community prior to release. Young people need to be prepared for release not just in the weeks before they leave custody, but at the point they enter it. They need to be aware of the community based opportunities available to them.
Sentence planning must focus on resettlement. There needs to be a continuous service between custody and the community, with sentence planning focused on resettlement throughout. The resettlement process should be a seamless one that bridges the divide between custody and community. The work done in custody should carry on in the community so that young people get the support they need beyond statutory periods of post custody supervision.
Enhanced support at times of transition. The transition period from custody to community offers a ‘window of opportunity’ in which young people can be open to interventions that aims to promote desistance. But it also represents a time of substantial risk during which young people may be under pressure to resume previous forms of behaviour. Reoffending, or breach, are both more likely in the critical period immediately after release.
There is a growing wealth of evidence about the distinct needs of young adults and what kind of approach by the criminal justice system is required to meet their needs. This evidence is particularly relevant for those working in probation, or in custodial institutions who will be working with young people transitioning from youth to adult services.
During the final two years of the programme we will continue to engage with young people, consult with practitioners and those involved in developing policies, and work with our partners to ensure that learning is communicated at both practice and policy level.
We will also do so through our membership of the Youth Justice Board’s Resettlement Steering Group, Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A) and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ). These activities will feed into the next phase of Beyond Youth Custody to ensure that our learning secures lasting impact to young people leaving custody beyond the lifecycle of the programme.
BYC has been designed to challenge, advance and promote better thinking in policy and practice for the effective resettlement of young people. It brings together Nacro with research and evaluation partners: ARCS (UK), and Salford and Bedfordshire universities. For more information or to download resources visit: www.beyondyouthcustody.net