16 March 2023 - Positive results for youth justice services

After a January dominated by our reports on what has been going wrong with probation practice, February provided a welcome opportunity to focus on what has been going right with local youth offending services. In a presentation to Westminster Legal Policy Forum event, I was able to celebrate the ratings we have given to these over the past year, with over two-thirds of the Youth Offending Services (YOS) we inspected last year getting an overall rating of ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. In a marked contrast to the Probation Service, around the country we are seeing stable and experienced YOS staff groups with low vacancy and attrition rates, very manageable caseloads and an impressive range of services. Including welcoming, child friendly premises and imaginative use of IT – all of this supported by often impressive leadership and very engaged multi-agency management boards.

This, in turn, is translating into impressive individual casework – with over 70 per cent of the cases we inspect being satisfactory against all our key questions around quality (versus less than half of the probation cases we’ve inspected over the past year).

That’s not to say there is no room for improvement. In an important research bulletin on the assessment of safety concerns in YOS caseloads (September 2022) (PDF, 564 kB), our research team found that a majority of children on these caseloads (including 84 per cent of court cases) were of medium or high concern in terms of their own welfare needs or potential risks to others – and that in one-in-five cases these risks were underestimated. Education remains another area of concern with our thematic inspection of education and training for these children, showing far too many had been excluded from school or were receiving part time (or sometimes none) of their statutory entitlement to education. And I’d like to see fewer vacancies for probation staff in Youth Offending Teams (YOT), which is a recurrent issue on our local inspections and is having a damaging impact on the successful transition of children on longer sentences from YOTs to adult probation.

In my first annual report on our youth justice inspections, in 2019, I said it was time to look at a broader basket of measures to calculate the performance of local YOS, rather than an exclusive focus on first-time entry (FTE) and reoffending rates, which we found showed no correlation with our quality ratings. So, I’m pleased that the MoJ has now come up with a new, broader set of KPIs for youth justice services that cover a much wider set of outcomes for children on their caseloads, including education, mental health, substance abuse and accommodation and will go live on 01 April. I was particularly pleased to see that the percentage of out-of-court disposals that are completed is going to be tracked – something I’ve been arguing for since becoming Chief Inspector.

The other key youth justice policy document out this month is the Minister of State for Justice, Damian Hinds, steer to the Youth Justice Board (YJB) on his strategic priorities (PDF, 103 kB) which seem sensible – as does the renewed investment and focus by the YJB in support (and challenge) in relation to local YOS performance. When I met the Minister last week, I also urged him to take action on delays in the youth justice system – up by 121 per cent since 2012, to a shocking average of 217 days from arrest to sentence in the youth courts – and on the need to find some way of working with these children while they wait for their cases (often indicative of serious criminal exploitation or risks to the public) to come to court.

And finally, a quick plug for our new online evidence base on youth justice services, pulled together over the past year by our fantastic research team – which we hope will become an essential resource for everyone working in this field.