Thursday, May 04, 2006

'Predicting' young offenders #1

The second of the government’s priorities was to deal with crime and reform of the criminal justice system. In particular there was concern about youth offending, and a growing belief that children could be prevented from becoming offenders if early intervention was targeted at those who displayed certain behaviours -such as having a short attention span or behaving aggressively - or at those who lived in a difficult or deprived environment.

The objection raised by critics of this idea is that, while many older offenders can be seen in retrospect to have had certain personality traits and life experiences in common, there is a dearth of evidence to show that the majority of children displaying such 'signs' will go on to become offenders. In other words, this may be an 'all buses are red' argument, and the effects of labelling children who have not committed offences may in themselves be problematic.

In 2001, there was outrage when Sir Ian Blair, then a Deputy Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police, suggested that small children who apparently showed signs of becoming criminals could be logged and monitored.

Although little more was said about it at the time, over the past few years this emphasis on ‘risk management’ of children has grown, and a plethora of schemes has sprung up to monitor and ‘divert’ those thought to be ‘at risk’ of offending behaviour, together with corresponding electronic records and assessment tools. In fact, it’s appropriate to issue an acronym-warning at this stage, plus another warning: don’t imagine this area has nothing to do with you, or with the Children’s Index/’Every Child Matters’ agenda. It’s actually fundamental.

Each local authority area has its own Youth Offending Team (YOT) that is responsible for making provision for youth justice, including preventive work. The YOT is a multi-agency body typically consisting of representatives from police, probation, education and social care. It is answerable to the Youth Justice Board (YJB).

Children aged 8-13 may be referred to the ‘Youth Inclusion and Support Panel’(YISP) if they are thought to be potential offenders, in which case an assessment is made using an in-depth tool called ‘ONSET’ (which gives useful insight into the kind of criteria used) and the child will be referred to an appropriate diversionary scheme. Data about them is held on the Youth Inclusion and Support Panel Management Information System (YISPMIS).

Another scheme run by each YOT, under the auspices of the YJB, is the ‘Youth Inclusion Programme’ and ‘Junior Youth Inclusion Programme’ (YIP and Junior YIP).

In each area, YIPs target the 50 young people aged 13-16 thought most 'at risk' of offending, truancy or social exclusion; Junior YIPs target those aged 8-12. The target group is identified via a process called ‘ID50’ which involves referrals from local agencies, or uses other information:

"there are clearly young people that are at risk but are not known by local agencies: the YIP must endeavour to access these young people. We believe that there is a considerable amount of local intelligence with regard to these young people – the YIP should assume the role of an identifying agency by collating information about these young people from local contacts, residents, tenancy associations, community groups, street wardens, etc."
Data about children involved in YIPs/Junior YIPs is held on the Youth Inclusion Programme Management Information System (YIPMIS). ONSET is not currently used on ‘YIP’ children, but the YJB believes it could be helpful to begin using it.

As we have said, the whole policy of 'early intervention' is highly controversial. Some US studies suggest that it is not helpful, and some recent news about a study underway in the UK can be seen here. The authors of this study assert that early contact with youth justice agencies is likely to exacerbate the commission of offences.


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