YOUNG PEOPLE IN CARE AND OFFENDING: A BROKEN SYSTEM

On the 23rd of June, 2015, the Prison Reform Trust launched a review to examine why children aged 10 to 17 who are in care are more likely to offend than children who are not in care. [1] The Trust acknowledges that the majority of young people in care do not offend or come into contact with the youth justice system; however, “children and young people who are, or have been, in care are over five times more likely than other children to get involved in the criminal justice system.” The Trust continues: “In a 2013 survey of 15-18 year olds in young offender institutions, a third of boys and 61% of girls said they had spent time in care. This is despite fewer than 1% of all children in England being in care.”  The review aims to identify why young people in care are disproportionately represented in the youth justice system and, importantly, how to respond to this problem.

The Trust’s claims are alarming but they are not new. Looked after children and care leavers have long been over-represented in Britain’s prisons. For example, research published by the Social Exclusion Unit in 2002 suggested that 27% of the adult prison population had once been in care [2] while surveys of 15-18 year olds in prison suggest that anywhere between one-quarter and one-half of young people have been in care. [3] Previous research has frequently tried to quantify and categorise the links between being in care, offending behaviour and contact with the youth justice system. These ‘risk factors’ for offending are complex and numerous [4] while many of the risk factors associated with crime are also associated with becoming looked after. [5] They include: coming from a household with low income and a large family; experiencing parental neglect, family conflict and disruption; becoming disengaged from school and performing poorly at school; and exhibiting a high likelihood of aggression and conduct disorder. [6]

Social disadvantage and offending

[“These structural and class inequalities—exacerbated by recent austerity and relevant particularly to looked after young people and young offenders—are central to understanding young people’s involvement in offending and the youth justice system.”]
These family and individual risk factors are not, however, causal or absolute and their explanatory power is limited. Indeed, they are only a small part of the wider social, political and economic disadvantage experienced by many looked after young people and young offenders. These structural and class inequalities—exacerbated by recent austerity and relevant particularly to looked after young people and young offenders—are central to understanding young people’s involvement in offending and the youth justice system. “Class” in this context is as much a lived experience, where people act in accordance with their relationships with others, and the resources available to them [7], as it is a social category [8] and it is these lived experiences of young offenders which tell us most about looked after young people and offending.

The Prison Reform Trust cites the following report from a 16-year-old girl in care: “What I’ve heard from different police officers when I’ve been arrested, it’s like, ‘you’re a kid in care, you’re never [going to] get out of this way of life. You’re in care, kids in care are always on drugs, kids in care always make themselves unsafe, kids in care always self-harm’. So they sort of put a title on kids in care like they’re something bad.” [9]

A looked after person (aged 16) in my own research with persistent and serious young offenders committed a series of offences after a period of desistance so that he could be assured of having somewhere to live. His former careworker told me: “When the money ran out for [name redacted] and they told me I couldn’t keep him any more, he had nowhere to go, literally, he had nowhere to live. So he went out and did five burglaries in one day knowing that he would get caught for them and banged up and then he’d at least have a roof over his head and three meals a day.”

Welfare vs. punishment

[“The main statutory aim of the youth justice system is the prevention of offending by children and most research agrees that punishing children (though unavoidable in a small number of cases) does not achieve this aim.”]
These excerpts illustrate young people’s disadvantage but also describe a set of systems which is at best neglecting young people and at worst “punishing disadvantage”. The main statutory aim of the youth justice system is the prevention of offending by children and most research agrees that punishing children (though unavoidable in a small number of cases) does not achieve this aim. Rather, the system should attempt to address the offending of children and young people by focusing on their complex needs and structural disadvantage: “In other words, a justice system that puts more emphasis on addressing welfare and less emphasis on punitive responses is likely to achieve better results in terms of reducing offending and reoffending.” [10]

The Prison Reform Trust is clear that its focus is on the flaws of the system(s), and structural inequalities, rather than problems with the young people themselves [11]. It is only through identifying, challenging and addressing these systemic and structural issues that we will be able to help young people in care and young people in the criminal justice system. These problems are perhaps best summarised by the 15-year-old looked after boy below:

“Because how can you just send kids to prison, you know? When you’re in court, yeah, it’s like everyone’s looking at you like you got a bad name for yourself. They don’t know what’s going on in my life. They think they know me, but they don’t.” [12]


[1] Prisonreformtrust.org.uk. (2015). Keeping children in care out of trouble, an independent review. Retrieved 26 June 2015, from http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/ProjectsResearch/CareReview

[2] Social Exclusion Unit,. (2002). Reducing offending by ex-prisoners. London: Social Exclusion Unit.

[3] Blades, R., Hart, D., Lea, J., & Willmot, N. (2011). Care – a stepping stong to custody? London: Prison Reform Trust. Retrieved 26 June 2015, from http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/careasteppingstonetocustody.pdf

[4] Farrington, D. (1996). Understanding and preventing youth crime. Layerthorpe: York Pub. Services.

[5] Cleaver, H., & Walker, S. (2004). Assessing children’s needs and circumstances. London: Jessica Kingsley.

[6] Darker, I., Ward, H., & Caulfield, L. (2008). An Analysis of Offending by Young People Looked After by Local Authorities. Youth Justice, 8(2), 134-148. doi:10.1177/1473225408091374

[7] Chatterton, P., & Hollands, R. (2003). Urban nightscapes. London: Routledge; McDonald, K. (1999). Struggles for Subjectivity: Identity, Action and Youth Experience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[8] White, R., & Cunneen, C. (2006). Social Class, Youth Crime and Justice. In B. Goldson & J. Muncie, Youth Crime and Justice (1st ed., pp. 17-29). London: Sage.

[9] Blades, R., Hart, D., Lea, J., & Willmot, N. (2011). Care – a stepping stong to custody? London: Prison Reform Trust. Retrieved 26 June 2015, from http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/careasteppingstonetocustody.pdf

[10] Jacobson, J., Bhardwa, B., Gyateng, T., Hunter, G., & Hough, M. (2011). Punishing Disadvantage. A profile of children in custody – a summary. London: Prison Reform Trust. Retrieved 26 June 2015, from http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Punishing_Disadvantage_Summary.pdf

[11] Prisonreformtrust.org.uk. (2015). Keeping children in care out of trouble, an independent review. Retrieved 26 June 2015, from http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/ProjectsResearch/CareReview

[12] Blades, R., Hart, D., Lea, J., & Willmot, N. (2011). Care – a stepping stong to custody? London: Prison Reform Trust. Retrieved 26 June 2015, from http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/careasteppingstonetocustody.pdf


This post was originally published on View from the North; it is cross-posted here with permission.