The YJB was responsible for commissioning secure accommodation for young offenders, coordinating and funding youth offending teams around the country, and acting as a policy and research repository. It is only fair to point out that it had some very good officials and had done its best to recalibrate a system which had a number of shortcomings in the 1990s, not least a lack of focus on proper partnership working between the different responsible agencies. However, in our view, its best was just nowhere near good enough to justify its continued existence, especially in these straitened times. The body had failed to make a dent on extremely high reoffending rates (with officials claiming only to be able regulate youth crime – not reduce it) and a recent Government review found that its headquarters were wasteful and overly-bureaucratic.
There’s a specific policy issue, too. Prevention is ultimately the key to reducing youth crime, but the ‘business model’ for youth justice is wrong - discouraging prevention and setting the system up to fail. Central government alone meets the costs of failure (custody), while local authorities and other agencies benefit financially when things go wrong and offenders end up in prison, as offenders are taken out of their caseloads and budgets. As Policy Exchange’s report, Arrested Development, has argued, decentralising the system and allowing councils or consortia of councils to hold the budgets for youth custody would transform the landscape, allowing a more rational use of resources and creating a cycle of reinvestment. Our vision for the youth justice system is based on locally-held budgets and aligned local incentives to get crime rates down. Government policy is slowly moving in this direction and, the more it does, the more the case for a large and expensive central body diminishes.
In addition to the structural reform, there’s a broader point. The Ministry of Justice has to save at least £2 billion over the next three years. We never used to have a bespoke youth arm of the justice system; its operating and research functions were simply performed by the Prison Service and the Home Office. These functions could easily now be transferred to the Ministry of Justice, where officials do the same job for 85,000 adult prisoners as the YJB does for just over 2,000 young offenders. The question for the Government was: should we save £100 million in bureaucracy over four years (while incentivizing a shift in policy emphasis towards prevention), or should we persist with a body that has never really delivered and, as a result, make even more damaging cuts to courts, legal aid or probation?
So the right decision has been made. A big opportunity to radically alter the youth justice landscape now awaits. The key issue for the next few months will be to ensure that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service’s overwhelming tendency to centralize funding and power does not allow the decentralization agenda – the key to sorting out our criminal justice system – to get lost in the transition period.
Max Chambers is a research fellow at Policy Exchange's crime and justice unit