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Youth Justice – the work of the Michael Sieff Foundation

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Foundation further developed its interest in the welfare needs of children caught up in the Criminal Justice System and organised a number of conferences.

Subsequently the Young Offenders Strategy Group was set up by Trustees. Outputs from this group (which later became the Young Defendants’ Group), included organising a Conference on Young Defendants in April 2009 to mark 100 years since the Children Act 1908.

It has always been a principle adopted by the Foundation that the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales, currently ten years, is too low. Following the conference in 2009, a letter cosigned by 32 national organisations was published in the Times in 2010 urging the age of criminal responsibility be raised substantially from 10 years old in line with other countries. (A copy of this is published on the correspondence page.)

Regrettably political and media opposition persists. We have therefore focused on other more achievable objectives.

In 2012 the Foundation established a new Action Plan for the Young Defendants’ Working Group, looking to achieve better recognition of the statutory requirements to consider the welfare of young defendants and reduce offending; a reduction in the number of young people in custody; and better support, information and services available to young defendants, their families and carers.

A seminar in January 2013 led to the setting up of a Parliamentarians’ Inquiry in November 2013 chaired by Lord Carlile, which the Foundation co-sponsored with the National Children’s Bureau. (See the Parliamentarians Inquiry section)

The report into the operation and effectiveness of the youth justice system was published in June 2014 and paved the way for changes consistent with the Action Plan. The Foundation has continuously promoted implementation of the recommendations of the Carlile report. Considerable progress has been made.

The Foundation has persisted in seeking extension of the powers of the Youth Court. More serious crimes are now often tried at in that venue, which is patently more appropriate than the Crown Court. Further consideration is still required. Criminal records imposed during childhood all too easily blight the future life of a child. The Foundation has supported the Standing Committee on Youth Justice on their initiative to bring about radical change in this area.

The inadequacy of legal representation of young people has been well evidenced and we have supported the Bar Standards Board and the Inns of Court College of Advocacy on their work to achieve improved advocacy competence.

Another of the recommendations which the Foundation has sought to promote is that of problem solving courts. In October 2014 we contributed to a conference organised by the High Sheriff in Northampton. This proved to be an important development because the then Chair of the local Youth Court Bench became interested in introducing a problem- solving approach in his local bench. He showed it could work. Why do young people commit offences and what can the courts do to help, rather than merely convict and sentence? After publication of the Report a meeting was convened with attendance from representatives from the Magistrates’ Association, National Children’s Bureau, the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, the Children’s Commissioner, Judicial College and the Youth Justice Board.

This group was later joined by the Ministry of Justice and the Centre for Justice Innovation. The Centre is now being funded by the Nuffield Foundation to research feasibility projects. To achieve real success a full national project will require senior judicial approval. The wheels grind slowly.

Following the publication of the Carlile Inquiry Report the Ministry of Justice established a Review conducted by Charlie Taylor which reported in 2016. Its Terms of Reference included consideration of the nature and characteristics of offending by young people aged 10-17 and the arrangements in place to prevent it; and how effectively the youth justice system and its partners operate in responding to offending by children and young people, preventing further offending, protecting the public and repairing harm to victims and communities, and rehabilitating young offenders. Subsequently he was appointed as Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board, so we remain positive that his proposals, many of which followed the principles proposed by the Carlile Inquiry Report, will ultimately be implemented.

Political developments unrelated to youth justice have proved unhelpful but our work continues undaunted on all these fronts.