Concerns around the prison population and how best to manage and rehabilitate offenders have frequently been the subject of headlines in the current climate. Recent unrest and disturbances in our prisons have meant that the needs of this population cannot be ignored. How best to meet those needs within the resources available is an urgent matter that the government is currently seeking to address.
The spotlight was shone on the plight of young people in custody in the recent report by HM Inspector of Prisons, published in July 2017, in which the Inspector warns of a ‘staggering’ decline of safety in ‘youth jails’. The report states that no young offender institution or secure training centre in England and Wales that was inspected in early 2017 was safe.
Characteristics of population of young offenders
The term ‘young offender’ refers to children and young people up to the age of 17 who have been found guilty of an offence, or are on remand for an offence. In the financial year ending March 2016, 31% of first time entrants (FTEs) to the YJS were young people aged 10-14, and the average age of an FTE was 15.2 years. Young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds accounted for 19% of all FTEs, while white young people accounted for 72% (9% unknown). This compares with 11% BAME and 85% white in the year ending March 2006 (3% unknown), as recorded by the police. In the year ending March 2016, young females accounted for 21% of FTEs, compared to 78% of males (with the remaining 1% unknown).
Recent trends in youth offending
The average population of young people in custody in the year ending March 2016 was 960. The average population of young people in custody has reduced by 66% since 2006, when the figure was 2,800. Although the number of offenders has reduced significantly, the proportion of young people in custody for more serious offences has increased, and the complexity of the difficulties of the young people who commit these crimes has also increased.
The young people who remain in youth custody today are the most challenging for professionals to work with. This is thought to be due to, among other reasons, more complex family backgrounds and an increase in mental health issues, group or gang offending, and youth violence. The average number of previous offences for each young person has risen over the last ten years, as has the average time spent in custody or on remand. In addition, 68% of young people re-offend within a year after having been released.
Prevalence of special educational needs among young offenders
Research carried out on young people in custody has revealed the following levels of special educational needs:
- Speech, language and communication needs - 60-90% of offenders, compared to 10% of general population
- ADHD - 30% of offenders have a diagnosis, five times higher than the general population
- Learning disabilities - 20% have identified learning disabilities, compared to 2-3% of general population
- Dyslexia - estimates range from 43-57%, compared to 10% of the general population
- Traumatic brain injury - 50-80%, compared to 10% general population
- School exclusions - around 90% have been excluded from school at any one time, compared to 3-5% of general population, 63% of boys and 74% of girls had been permanently excluded
- School attendance - around 40% of young people have not been to school since they were 14 and 90% were not attending before they reached 16 years old.
Reviewing education in youth custody
Young people are entitled to receive 17 hours of education whilst in custody. However, they often don’t receive the full 17 hours due to time being spent in isolation, and/or part of this 17 hours being taken up by other activities. In the government commissioned ‘Review of the Youth Justice System’ published in December 2016, its author, Charlie Taylor, proposed the following:
- Redesign youth custody to cater for a smaller but more challenging group of young people in custody
- Placing education at the centre of youth custody
- Replacing youth prisons with smaller, secure schools to help young people to master basics in English and mathematics, and provide high quality vocational education in a more therapeutic environment.
In its response to this document (also in December 2016), the government commits to putting education and health at the “heart of youth custody”. It states an intention to improve its knowledge of groups of children and young people in custody with SEN, and emphasizes the importance of, “ensuring that the special educational needs of the young people are met, and that teaching takes place in appropriate sized groups, with appropriate staffing”.
Work of educational psychologists with young offenders
The Code of Practice for Special Educational Needs published in June 2014, places an obligation on local authorities to meet the special educational needs of children and young people in custody. A small team of educational psychologists (EPs) at One Education have recently begun working with the Youth Justice service in Manchester, in order to provide support around young people with SEN who are subject to court orders, and/or who have been released on license from custody.
The aim of the EP input is to work with the Youth Justice Service to enable young people to re-engage with education, in order to reduce the chances of re-offending. It can be challenging trying to convince this group of young people to re-engage with learning, when often the experience of school has been a negative one and they can feel that they have been rejected by the world of education. However, this makes it even more important that this group of vulnerable young people receives appropriate support that will increase the chance of improved life outcomes, through providing new opportunities for engaging with learning.
Authored by one of our educational psychologists, who is a specialist practitioner in Social, Emotional and Mental Health. For more information or guidance on anything discussed in this article, please contact our Educational Psychology team using the form below, or by calling 0844 967 1111.