What next after 25 years of youth justice evaluation?

The youth justice system in England has undergone significant reform over the past 25 years as it seeks to reduce reoffending and keep communities safe. For much of that time, Jack and I have been at the forefront of developing youth justice policy and practice through our contributions to research and evaluation. Looking back on the past quarter-century serves as a reminder of lessons that need to be learned – and re-learned – on both sides of the Atlantic.

England’s Approach to Youth Justice

England’s approach to youth justice evolved from a failed repertoire of punishment and deterrence (especially during the 1980s) to an emphasis on community safety, inter-agency partnerships, and “what works?”. Tony Blair’s New Labour reforms led to the establishment in 1998 of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) and Youth Offending Teams (YOTs). Since then, policy in England and Wales has leaned towards prevention and early intervention to address the root causes of offending behaviour.

The Milton Keynes Youth Crime Reduction Project (1997-1999) was seen as a prototype of an inter-agency approach to community safety. I cut my research teeth in evaluating this pioneering approach. Working with children’s services, schools, and probation, the ever-innovative Thames Valley Police led a three-tiered programme based on community safety, educational support, and restorative justice. While novel for their time, many of these ideas had become mainstream by the turn of the 21st century.

Whitehall’s Quest for What Works?

The ideas developed in Milton Keynes found national expression in the Youth Inclusion Programme, which was then the Youth Justice Board’s flagship prevention programme. Between 2000 and 2006, I managed the national evaluation of that ambitious program, which operated in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England and Wales. Local YIPs targeted the most at-risk young people in the community and engaged them in a programme of universal youth work. In those early years, the approach to risk was rudimentary, but the YIP evaluation coincided with the development of risk assessment tools such as ONSET and ASSET.

Building on this experience, one of the early projects that Jack and I worked on was evaluating the Challenge & Support programme. This operated in 50 neighbourhoods and targeted anti-social behaviour by young people. It is an interesting footnote that the former Department of Children, Families & Education funded it. If the department’s name signified a broader mission, it would soon be rebranded as the more prosaic Department for Education by the 2010 Coalition Government.

Embedding Desistance Theory

The past 13 years of austerity might have narrowed central government’s ambitions and eroded the local infrastructure of youth justice. However, since our founding in 2012, GtD has built on our legacy of research and evaluation, and we have remained at the forefront of developments in the youth justice system. During this time, the search for “the silver bullet” – a single intervention that would solve multiple problems – has been replaced by the more credible desistance approach to offending. This is predicated on the knowledge that most young people don’t re-offend or will naturally stop reoffending. Desistance theory informed the Surrey Youth Restorative Intervention (YRI) and the development of the new AssetPlus assessment tool, both of which were evaluated by GtD.

Understanding Current Complexities

The past decade has also seen a reduction in the number of young people entering the youth justice system in England & Wales. In collaboration with RAND Europe, our joint research showed that these historic lows might be attributed to changes in police procedure or the greater use of diversionary projects, such as the YRI, and a reduction in youth offending and the risk factors associated with youth offending. In this context, however, the youth secure estate is now reserved for some of the most serious offenders who present a risk of harm to themselves or society. Our evaluation of the Youth Justice Reform Programme examined the impact of a raft of proposals to make the secure estate safer, with better-educated custodial staff and more educational opportunities for the young people incarcerated.

The Reform Agenda

Twenty-five years later, there is still more work to be done on both sides of the Atlantic. In both jurisdictions, there is a need to consider how desistance theory can be more firmly embedded in practice and supported by understanding a child’s needs rather than their risks. Renewed efforts need to be taken to reduce incarceration’s harmful effects, either through diversion or community-based sanctions or ensuring that the secure estate is safe for the young people required to be detained there (and those who work them). Finally, the reform agenda needs to eliminate racial disparities that have seen young Black boys in England and African-Americans in the US more likely to be brought into the criminal justice system and punished more severely.

Jack and I are committed to building on our past work.  We plan to combine our subject matter expertise and cutting-edge methodologies and continue to contribute to the continuous reform in justice for young people on both sides of the Atlantic. Please get in touch with me if you want to learn more.