Reforming prisons

14 Jul 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 14 Jul 2017

In the wake of some startling statistics about reoffending and youth justice, Scope looks at whether prisons represent the best way of reducing criminal behaviour.

Nearly 90% of all children released from custody reoffend.

This startling figure was part of the recent NI Audit Office report, Managing Children Who Offend.

The paper takes a broad look at the youth justice picture in Northern Ireland – the aforementioned statistic relates to the year 2013/14 – and provides plenty to think about for policy makers and the various agencies working in this area, both statutory and voluntary.

Per the NIAO: “The number of first-time offences committed by young people has been reducing in recent years. However, more than one in four young offenders will go on to reoffend within one year.  Repeat offenders account for a disproportionately high percentage all incidents, representing over 70 per cent of all youth crime and disorder.

“Long term analysis of reoffending has been constrained by a lack of reliable data. However, rates of reoffending have increased since 2010-11.  The most recent statistics reveal that while the overall reoffending rate is 28 per cent, the reoffending rate for those released from custody is 89 per cent (31 out of 35).”

The Audit Office says further that custodial services comprise the single largest element of the Youth Justice Agency’s budget – the average cost per occupant per annum is £324,000 – says it is committed to assessing the cost effectiveness of interventions, adding that this is “the foundation for delivering value for money”.

Altogether this points to a difficult situation for policy makers. There are several successes highlighted – a continuing reduction in first-time offences can only be seen as a significant positive – but the role and effectiveness of custody has to be called into question. It is very expensive and it does not appear to work.


Scope spoke with Shadd Maruna, a Professor in Criminology at the University of Manchester who has also done significant work in Northern Ireland.

He said that research into desistance from crime and offender rehabilitation is a relatively young social science but that already certain factors have been “safely established”, all of which are related to successful desistance from criminal behaviour. These are:

  • Stable and rewarding employment
  • Stable relationships
  • Moving away from criminally active peers
  • Feelings of self-efficacy and hope for the future
  • Motivations to help others and to contribute to society

“Prisons and youth justice facilities often claimed to be motivated by desires to promote desistance or rehabilitate young people.  Yet, if you think about the effects of imprisonment on each one of the five factors above, in every case prison impedes rather than supports these correlates of desistance:  a) a prison record makes finding good employment nearly impossible; b) incarceration breaks up families, relationships, and even makes finding future partners more challenging; c) youth justice facilities lock young people away with precisely the peers that they should be avoiding; d) imprisonment by definition takes away personal responsibility and choice, and promotes a passive dependency known as institutionalisation; e) imprisonment cuts young people off from opportunities to contribute to society in a positive way, and gives them little motivation for wanting to do so.

“Restorative justice theorists have suggested ways of ‘doing justice’ that are more in line with the research findings of what promotes successful transitions away from criminal behaviour. These initiatives mirror traditional rites of passage in other aspects of society whereby those who have done wrong seek to make amends for this and move forward.

“These go far beyond just the assembling of a restorative conference, as important as those rituals can be, but also involve requiring young people to take the initiative and leadership in making amends to their communities.”

Third-sector response

Several third sector organisations work across Northern Ireland for better youth justice, in a variety of roles. The Audit Office’s report was met with support but also expressions of ongoing frustration.

Include Youth works to improve prospects for disenfranchised young people – including those from a care background, or who have faced other disadvantages. They said:

“This is not the first report to call for change. The 2011 review of the Youth Justice System and subsequent reports from the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, have made recommendations calling for improvement. Many of these recommendations remain unmet. It is deeply frustrating for those organisations who work directly with children and young people to see the slow pace of change. Urgent action is required.

“We hope that the NIAO report will revitalise and renew government departments shared commitment to putting children's best interests at the heart of our Youth Justice System, not just in principle, but in demonstrable practice and concrete actions. We particularly welcome the focus on the need to look at alternatives to custody.”

Start360 delivers personal, positive interventions to young people and through its work has helped to reduce reoffending rates. The organisation said it shared the concerns of the report while CEO Anne-Marie McClure said:

“Start360 has developed innovative and proven practice that helps to reduce reoffending and recidivism – we know that throughcare works. Continuity of support between custody and community is essential for sustainable rehabilitation. In the long term, we should be taking a completely different approach – we should raise the age of criminal responsibility. This will allow a social engagement approach, rather than a criminal justice one, which will have a greater impact.”

Voluntary consensus

Vivian McConvey, CEO of VOYPIC (Voice of Young People in Care), said: “This report is a timely and clear reminder of the need for change in Northern Ireland’s youth justice system. For several years, reviews and reports have indicated flaws and inefficiencies in a system which responds to some of the most vulnerable and complex young people in our society. The lack of urgency and pace to redress these issues is at best frustrating and, at worst, of grave concern.

“The evidence that custody is not used as a last resort for young offenders continues to frustrate me and others who seek to protect the best interests of this group of vulnerable young people. We believe that young people should be supported and managed in a more efficient and effective, not to say, compassionate way. We should learn from the experience of others and from what young people tell us and introduce interventions with proven impact.”

Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma echoed these concerns, saying there is a lack of focus and loss of momentum in addressing long standing concerns about how we deal with children who offend.

“I welcome the NIAO report and in particular the call for a specific strategy to address offending and reoffending through policy, services and interventions.

“Children who offend, more often than not, have not had a fair start in life. They remain among the most vulnerable children, many of whom have experienced multiple adversities and challenges in life ranging from poverty, family breakdown, legacy impact of the conflict, mental health problems and/or drug and alcohol issues.”

Future policy

The Audit Office’s full report is concise and interesting and well worth reading for anyone interested in this area of policy.

Its recommendations are welcome but, in many ways, obvious – a fact that is most damning of all for our policy makers. Detailed reports should not need to make plain and basic suggestions.

These recommendations include that the DoJ should have a specific strategy to address youth offending, that there should be effective measures to determine any reduction in youth offending, and that interventions should be based on the evidence of what works.

Questions should be asked about why these are suggestions from the Audit Office rather than the basis of existing policy.

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