At the end of last year the Ministry of Justice published its response to the Harris Review into self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18-24 year olds.  Sandra Paul reflects on the debate in this sensitive area and asks what next for youth justice?

Lord Harris of Haringey’s independent review assessed whether appropriate lessons had been learned from the self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18-24 year olds – following the full roll out of the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork process (ACCT) in April 2007 up until the end of 2013.  Asking what action needs to be taken to prevent further deaths, the review focused on:

  • vulnerability – including the management of the risk of self-harm or suicide;
  • safety – including violence reduction (bullying), the built environment and emergency response;
  • mental health and other healthcare needs;
  • learning disability and other complex needs;
  • information sharing between different agencies and the whether inside and outside the criminal justice system and whether information can be better utilised to assess risk factors;
  • the relationships between staff and prisoners, family contact and staff training.

Work began in April 2014 and the final report was presented back in July 2015. The review made 108 recommendations to the government.

The Justice Committee launched the Young Adult Offenders inquiry that same month. It intended to review the nature and effectiveness of the Ministry of Justice’s strategy and governance structures for dealing with young adult offenders. 

In a Written Statement to Parliament on 17 December 2015 responding to the report, Justice Secretary Michael Gove underlined that: “we must never simply accept self-harm and self-inflicted deaths as an inevitable feature of prison life”. He underlined that reducing the rates of violence, self-harm and deaths in custody is a priority for the National Offender Management Service. 

With such key issues at stake the Justice Committee is hearing further evidence and invited Lord Harris himself to appear before MPs on the 12th January 2016 along with representatives of the Youth Justice Board, the Young Review and Black Training Enterprise Group. With this second phase of evidence gathering, MPs are continuing their examination of what might constitute more effective or appropriate treatment of young adults throughout the criminal justice process. They are also assessing the impact of guidance to sentencers and prosecutors which advises that they consider the maturity of the offender in their decisions.

The inquiry seeks views on what impact have the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms had on the transition between youth offending teams and probation services? Rehabilitation being a key part of the Harris review recommendations and an issue the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, committed to examining last year, announcing his own review into youth justice.  Gove stated that an assessment of whether the current system, which was created in 2000, remains able to meet the challenges faced today. He argued that: “It is vital that we seize the opportunity to rehabilitate young people who have offended, to steer them away from a life of crime, and to set them on a more positive course which will benefit both them and society.”

The priority being given to fixing this part of the criminal justice system is well over due. Preventing even one young person from feeling  so destitute that they believe they have no choice but to take their own life is in my view worth every penny of the time and resources being employed. Though  if the scenes depicted in the recent Panorama programme “Teenage Prison Abuse Exposed” are accurate in even  a small number of cases it is going to be a very long and expensive journey.