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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Youth justice: How it works
Tackling youth offending has been at the heart of the government's criminal justice reforms since it first came to power in 1997.

Figures compiled before the 1997 general election showed that approximately 70% of all crimes that affect ordinary people are committed by a small number of young men - almost all of whom began offending in their teens.

The overhaul of the youth justice system has set out to tackle this in three ways:

  • Prevent youngsters from falling in to crime
  • Provide the criminal justice system with more sentencing choices
  • Focus sentencing on preventing repeat offending

    Youth Justice Board

    The reforms began with the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act which set out to change the way the youth justice system worked in England and Wales.

    The new system seeks to ensure that every agency which can influence the behaviour of an offender or potential young criminal works together to find a solution.

    This means that new teams including educationalists, community volunteers social workers, the police and others are charged with devising schemes to tackle the underlying causes of crime such as family or drug problems.

    Sentencing options


    In April 2000 a new range of options were introduced in England and Wales which aimed to equip magistrates and the police with the means of making the punishment fit the criminal, rather than just the crime.

    The options are chosen from a scale linked to the severity of the crimes committed:

  • Prevention schemes
  • "Final Warnings"
  • Court community sentences
  • Intensive Supervision
  • Custody and Training

    Preventing offending

    Some 70 Youth Inclusion Programmes are now in force in deprived areas across the country and aim to target children who are likely to offend.

    Rather than leaving the youngsters to their own devices and criminal temptations during non-school periods, the teams organise activities and supervision to keep the children away from drugs and criminality.

    Final warnings

    "Final Warnings" came in to effect in April 2000 and replaced the previous police system of cautioning offenders.

    After being given a "Final Warning", the offender is expected to take part in a programme to tackle their actions. If they offend again, they are sent to court.

    Community Sentencing

    Community Sentencing is used where the sentencing magistrates believe that some form of programme within the community would be the best way of trying to stop offending.

    For instance, a court may identify that the parents are to blame for a child's actions. In that instance, the parents would be obliged to attend a scheme aimed at making them more responsible.

    The government and Youth Justice Board also wants to encourage courts to consider using more restorative justice programmes whereby the offender repays both the victim and society.

    Restorative justice options include a meeting between victim and criminal or an order to carry out work to repair damage done.

    More than 5,000 reparation orders have been made since June 2000.

    The final form of community sentencing is known as the "referral order" which comes into force in April 2002.

    If an offender pleads guilty or is convicted for a first offence, the courts can refer him or her to a special panel comprising an expert and two members of the community.

    The panel devises a scheme that ensures that reparations are made while the offender's behaviour is tackled through providing, for instance, a mentor to guide the youngster on to the straight and narrow.

    The Youth Justice Board is very optimistic about the prospects for the referral scheme after apparent successes at the trial stage.

    Intensive supervision

    The Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) came into force this year and is the final resort for the courts before opting for custody.

    It includes a strong community element but is backed up by round-the-clock surveillance of the offender through electronic tagging and personal visits.

    The idea is that serious young offenders are not only placed in schemes aimed at ending criminality (such as drug therapy and education), but they are also given a clear indication that they will end up in custody if they don't change.

    The scheme's trial in Rotherham during 2000 was considered a major success. The 22 offenders on the scheme had committed 157 offences in nine months before they began the programme. Most of them had no stable home, half were taking drugs and a third were illiterate.

    During the six-month trial, the group committed only 28 offences in total as the round-the-clock supervision focused their attentions on changing behaviour.

    Custody

    The final option remains custody. In the year to March 2001 approximately 6,600 young offenders ended up on a Detention and Training Order (DTO) which aims to punish and rehabilitate in equal measure.

    A DTO can last between four and 24 months with half the time spent in custody and the remaining half in community rehabilitation.

    But critics say that, in practice, the detention element provides too little time to tackle criminality but lasts long enough to lower an offender's job prospects on release.

    The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) says that nine out of 10 teenagers who are locked up reoffend after their release.

    Secondly, there appears to be wide regional variations in how many teenagers are placed on DTOs.

    Lord Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, has urged courts to think about how they use this final detention option. He has recommended that they should consider the other community-related penalties first.

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