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Young Offenders: Sentencing Guidelines

Volume 779: debated on Thursday 16 March 2017

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to assess the financial and other implications for probation and other relevant services of the introduction of new sentencing guidelines for young offenders.

My Lords, sentencing guidelines are produced by the independent Sentencing Council. The resource assessment produced by the council concludes that these revised guidelines will have no or minimal impact on resources to respond to offending by children and young people as they are intended to ensure a consistent approach to sentencing, not to make significant changes to practice.

My Lords, the new sentencing guidelines for young offenders, with their emphasis on rehabilitation, are welcome, as is the recognition that many young offenders come from “deprived homes” and have,

“low educational attainment … experience of abuse and/or neglect … and the misuse of drugs and/or alcohol”.

Does this not suggest that, in addition to the work of an overstretched probation service, there needs to be greater investment in local health, education and children’s services with a view to preventing offending and promoting rehabilitation?

My Lords, I entirely agree with what the noble Lord has said—and indeed I have good news on that front. First, let me say that the youth offending statistics are very encouraging. Since the creation of the youth justice system, the number of young people in that system has fallen dramatically. More attention has been paid in recent years to low-level offending by children. An example of what the Government see as an important response to the noble Lord’s question is that, as a result of Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system, the Government have committed to developing two new secure schools as a pilot to accommodate young people who are currently being detained in youth offending institutions and secure training centres. There will be a strong focus on education and welfare. The schools will provide a new form of custodial provision with better outcomes for young people: in short, placing education at the heart of their detention to improve their life chances and deter reoffending.

My Lords, the new guidelines recognise that particular factors arising from ethnicity, such as a history of discrimination, should be considered when sentencing young offenders. On the MoJ’s own evidence, the system currently disadvantages ethnic minority boys in particular. They are more likely to be arrested and charged, and then sent to the Crown Court to be sentenced and to receive a custodial sentence. How does the MoJ propose to address this inequality, and in particular what help with this can it offer young offending teams?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that judges, particularly when children or young people are involved, consider the individual circumstances of each case to prevent reoffending and to stop young people falling into a life of crime. This includes being aware of the factors contributing to the overrepresentation of black and minority ethnic children and young people in the youth justice system. The new guideline aims to ensure a consistent approach to sentencing and to look in far greater detail at the age, background and circumstances of the individual child. This is in order to reach the most appropriate sentence that will best achieve the principal aim of the youth justice system, which is preventing reoffending.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that keeping young people in custody is financially very costly, and very costly to them on an individual basis? Would it not be better if we could devise better ways of diverting young people from custodial sentences to prevent this downward spiral into long-term criminality?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. These guidelines have been developed following extensive public consultation, very much on this point, in 2016. Research with sentencers suggested that there may be a shift from custodial to community sentences for a small number of cases where a custodial sentence is currently imposed. The important thing is that we are paying more attention to low-level offending by children. We want to keep them out of custody where possible. It is quite clear to us that we have to tackle underlying factors that lead to children and young people committing offences, thereby blighting their life chances. Since the peak in youth offending in 2006-07 there has been an incredible 71% fall in the number of young people sentenced, from around 94,600 to just under 28,000 in 2015-16. Custodial sentencing has seen a 70% fall—this is amazing progress.

My Lords, that is very encouraging, but, following on from what was just said by the noble Lord, is there not a lot to be learned from community restorative justice in Northern Ireland? Should we not be developing along those lines?

My Lords, as we continue to develop our plans for supporting young people and children—we are talking here sometimes about very young children—we look at every opportunity to consider how other countries manage, including what is happening in Northern Ireland. We are developing our framework very much in terms of what was recommended by the Charlie Taylor review because we think that that will take us in the right direction for the future of our children and young people.

My Lords, will the Minister look at how the benefits system interacts with those who are released from custody, particularly young offenders but offenders more generally? I have long thought that the benefits system is far too rigid and far less generous than it should be to keep released offenders, especially young offenders, in a system that leads to a job—in their case, which trains them for a job. Otherwise, they simply fall back into their old ways, mixing with their old friends.

The noble Lord is right. We have debated this over many years in both Houses of this Parliament. This is one of the key recommendations which the Government have accepted and taken on board in putting the education, training and healthcare of these children and young people at the heart of developing pilot secure schools, for example, where these children will have education and training. There has also to be a focus on the benefits system to ensure that we encourage and incentivise them not to reoffend.

If we have to have custodial sentences—I am sure that in many cases they are appropriate and mine was certainly one of them—would it not be good if people who go in bad came out better? Is it possible for us to review the kind of institutions that we have and probably return to the good old days of what was called the reformatory system—the approved schools system—where people were got hold of, transformed, educated and brought back into society so that they did not become recidivists?

The noble Lord speaks with great passion about this. I have experience of it from going into the old what we called borstals and so on, and realising that for those children—perhaps the noble Lord was one of them—the future was bleak. I am pleased to say that, for example, in 2015 only some 6% of children and young people were sentenced to immediate custody. The system has changed and is changing. We are making progress and we want to make it better because we appreciate, through vast experience, that we have not done enough to date for our children and young people.