Delays in the youth justice system having life-changing impact on children

New research says ‘urgent action’ is needed to tackle the impact of COVID on the youth justice system.

03/05/22

Delays in the youth justice system having life-changing impact on children

COVID has exacerbated delays in the police and courts progressing children’s cases, that were increasing even before the pandemic, and which are now having life-changing impacts, a new policy briefing has said.

The research, carried out by the Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) says COVID-19 has exacerbated issues faced by children in the youth justice system, significantly affecting their mental health and increasing exposure to risks that could increase chances of future offending.

After a child’s arrest for allegedly committing an offence, a charging decision is made based on the evidence and whether it is in the public interest. Normally, police will then gather evidence and see if it is sufficient to charge, releasing the child under pre-charge bail and a decision should be made within 28 days.

However, researchers warned that police are increasingly using what’s known as ‘Released Under Investigation’ (RUI), whereby a child is released subject to no conditions, and no time limit for a police decision. Delays throughout the youth justice system are only making this worse.

“You could have it on you for a year, 2 years, 3 years,” one Youth Solicitor told researchers, adding: “this is on your shoulder, and could creep up at any point and destroy your life.”

Researchers also found that in the early stages of the pandemic, some children in custody spent up to 23 hours a day alone in their cells, and others went up to 12 months without an in-person visit. Their education was hugely disrupted, with inadequate access to laptops and teaching materials leading, in many cases, to young people not gaining qualifications.

The report found that children’s effective participation in court is also often at risk, and a lack of specialism and understanding of children’s needs is impacting their experiences and outcomes.

It says ‘careful consideration’ is needed about the impact of new digital ways of working with children going through court, before pandemic practice becomes embedded.

“Ensuring children can effectively participate in their court proceedings - understanding and being involved - is a core component of the right to a fair trial,” the report said. It added: “Pre-pandemic evidence on virtual justice raises concerns that using video and audio links, rather than appearing in court in person, exacerbates existing difficulties for children.”

Researchers reviewed existing reports into the youth justice system during the pandemic, interviewed over 100 youth justice professionals, conducted a national survey of youth justice professionals and spoke to children in a young offenders’ institute secure, a secure children’s home and children working with youth offending teams in the community.

They documented the impact of the pandemic on working practices, barriers and enablers to effective practice, children’s experiences and views of these adaptations, and the lessons learned for policy and practice.

Professor Hannah Smithson, Head of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and lead on the research project said that children in the justice system were “completely overlooked” during the pandemic.

“Children in the justice system are some of the most vulnerable in society.”

“This research shows that a new approach to youth justice is needed, one which adopts a public health approach to address the impact of COVID on the welfare and vulnerabilities of justice-involved children.

“Addressing the impact should be joined up with schools, children’s services, youth work, health, housing and grass roots organisations. Without this, we are in danger of failing a whole generation of children and young people.”

Within the wider youth justice system, professionals expressed concern that some COVID adaptations, including reductions in specialist statutory and non-statutory support and fewer in-person welfare checks increased risks of domestic abuse, neglect and criminal exploitation.

Youth justice professionals outlined their safeguarding concerns during lockdowns with children isolated in their homes with family members in crisis, not attending school, and lacking interaction with friends and peers.

This led to increases in anxiety and isolation, and of concern to staff escalating mental health issues that had led to attempts of self-harm and suicide.

Smithson added: “The youth justice system needs to recognise that children are likely to have been traumatised by their increased exposure to increased vulnerabilities during the pandemic. Children should be supported to participate in the planning of post-pandemic services based on individual and local needs.”

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