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Justice system sets children up to fail

With a 72% reconviction rate within a year for children and young people leaving custody, it is little surprise that resettlement has been the hot topic of youth justice in recent years. The Howard League for Penal Reform has been looking at the routes back into offending, with some startling results.

Children who end up in custody come from the most disadvantaged families and communities, whose lives are frequently characterised by social and economic deprivation, neglect and abuse. Children in trouble with the law describe a sense of profound exclusion from a society which they do not feel included in or recognised by.

Working with young people from across the country, as part of U R Boss, a five year project supported by the Big Lottery Fund, the Howard League has explored the issue of young people’s self-identity in a new report.

Life Outside: Collective Identity, Collective Exclusion focuses on life after young people leave custody and are under the supervision of youth offending teams in the community. Children’s prisons do little more than bring young people in trouble with the law together and reinforce their negative self-perceptions. Periods of imprisonment emotionally starve children and young people of family relationships, while evidence shows that positive family relationships are key to healthy child development.

Strategies to better support families to spend time with children and young people are central to responding in a progressive way to social change rather than separating them through periods of incarceration.

Life under supervision in the community fails to tackle the underlying causes of crime and all too often sets vulnerable children up to fail. The conditions and restrictions that are imposed when a young person leaves prison serve only to criminalise further young people, and exclude them from positive relationships with professionals; their families and their communities.

Children and young people’s negative self-perceptions are exacerbated and reinforced throughout the youth justice system. No part of the system fully utilises and builds upon the positive, resilience factors that these young people demonstrate: many are proud of their local areas, have strong bonds with their families and have positive aspirations – although they have little confidence that they will achieve them.

The youth justice system has failed, and will continue to do so until it listens to young people and addresses the underlying causes of crime. The collective exclusion that young people feel may well have played its part in why disorder flared on the streets of London and elsewhere this summer.

We would be wise to think twice before perpetuating responses that simply serve to exacerbate that exclusion and which fail to unpick the reasons why young people commit crime in the first place.

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