Sentence aimed at turning young people away from crime could work better

Referral orders are the most common community sentence for young people. They are more effective than other youth sentences in reducing reoffending, but they are not being delivered as government intended. If they were, they could be more effective still, said Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation. Today she published a report, Referral orders: do they achieve their potential?

A referral order is the first community sentence received by most young people who have committed a crime. It provides a good opportunity to help young people to change their behaviour before it becomes entrenched. They differ from other sentences because they involve a panel of volunteers from the community who should decide the best course of action for the young person, to help him turn away from crime. The focus is on three things: reparation (payback) to the victim or community, help for the young person to reintegrate back into the community, and restorative justice.

The inspection found that overall not enough attention was given locally and nationally to ensuring that referral orders achieved their objectives.

Inspectors found that panels sometimes felt constrained by the pre-determined views of youth offending team (YOT) case managers and didn’t feel that they had enough control over decision-making. The available guidance was not as helpful as it could be, as it was too detailed in parts and in some ways contradictory. Young people responded well to the involvement of volunteers, and generally volunteers were eager to make a difference, but relationships between volunteers and YOT workers were more variable, and engagement between youth offender panels and young people to understand the harm that had been caused and to agree how it would be put right varied considerably.

Referral orders provide the chance to focus on a young person’s future and the steps that might help him turn away from crime. However, actions agreed with the young person and panel tended to focus on the immediate causes of the particular offence, rather than trying to understand what could help the young person stay out of trouble in the future, such as education.

YOTs had a strong commitment to the development and use of restorative justice although there was sometimes confusion about what that meant. We found that not enough victims became involved in restorative justice or benefitted in other ways from referral order work. Although there were good examples of direct reparation, and reparation to the community, in general not enough attention was given to it. Magistrates and judges had confidence in YOTs but some were not clear about the detail of referral orders.

Greater attention needs to be given to making referral orders work well, with a young person engaged constructively and given a say in their contract. Recommendations include improving the national guidance for the operation of referral orders and making clear the respective roles and responsibilities and those who support them, ie youth offending teams and panels.

Dame Glenys Stacey said:

“Referral orders are better than other sentences at turning young people away from crime, but they could be better still. Youth offending teams need to rethink how they work with volunteers on panels that meet the young people and agree their plan of action. Some young people value their relationship with volunteers highly, but volunteers often felt boxed-in by youth offending teams and weren’t clear on roles and responsibilities.

“Youth offending teams want to do a good job, and we hope this report helps them. The Ministry of Justice is reviewing youth justice services in England and Wales and we hope our findings are helpful.”


Notes to Editors:

  1. A copy of this report can be found on HM Inspectorate of Probation’s website at from 5 July 2016.
  2. HMI Probation is an independent inspectorate, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and reporting directly to the Secretary of State on the effectiveness of work with adults, children and young people who have offended, aimed at reducing reoffending and protecting the public.
  3. The Restorative Justice Council defines restorative justice within the criminal justice system as giving “victims the chance to meet or communicate with their offenders to explain the real impact of the crime – it empowers victims by giving them a voice. It also holds offenders to account for what they have done and helps them to take responsibility and make amends. For further information, see:
  4. The Ministry of Justice/Youth Justice Board referral order guidance says: “Where possible reparation should be based on the victims’ wishes; otherwise reparation can be to the wider community. Reparation to individual victims may include an explanation, an apology, and practical recompense, including financial compensation, for the harm that has been caused. Reparation to the wider community should make young people aware of the impact that their offending behaviour has on their community and enable them to make amends. Youth offending teams should have a range of local community reparation programmes [which] .. may include: physical work (such as clearing up litter, graffiti or vandalism, or helping with other environmental improvements and conservation); and/or helping people (such as working with elderly or disabled people, or helping to get messages across to other young people at risk of offending).” For further information, see:
  5. Please contact Jane Parsons in HMI Probation Press Office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information.