Youth Justice: Evidence Based Policy in 2017?

This month has seen the publication of Lord Taylor’s Review of the Youth Justice System in England & Wales.

In his comprehensive report, Taylor makes a number of recommendations “to transform the youth justice system in which young people are treated as children first and offenders second, and in which they are held to account for their offending”.

Of particular interest to me was Taylor’s emphasis on diverting children out of the justice system, where possible, and directing the police, local authorities and health authorities to operate these schemes jointly. Taylor identifies such multi-agency leadership as one of the principles of good practice in diversion that includes, proportionality, speed, sensitivity to victims, light touch assessment and access to other services.

If these recommendations are implemented, then there are reasons to be cheerful about the future direction of youth justice in England and Wales. But, have we not been here before? It is nearly 20 years since Tony Blair formed the ‘New Labour’ administration in 1997, with its commitment to ‘evidence-led’ policy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1998 youth justice reforms and the creation of multi-agency Youth Offending Teams. “Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime” was the slogan of the day, and I cut my evaluation teeth in the boom of criminological research and evaluation, and the search for “what works?” in youth justice.

Within a decade, however, the laudable attempt to re-set youth justice by informed policy had become jaded. Traditional law and order politics were reasserting themselves, something that Barry Goldston recognised in his excellent article “The sleep of (criminological) reason: Knowledge–policy rupture and New Labour’s youth justice legacy“. Giving his retrospective, Goldson identified a “trajectory of policy [that] has ultimately moved in a diametrically opposed direction to the route signalled by research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence”. In other words, the knowledge-base was telling policy makers to be doing one thing, but they appeared to be doing just the opposite.

In his article Goldson identified five areas where the rupture between the policy and practice was most evident: research tells us that young people committing crime is relatively ‘normal’ (but the response is to be intolerant of this); the evidence is that rates of youth crime are relatively low (but politicians tend to amplify it and “define it up”); evaluation shows that diversion is effective (but the response is for earlier intervention and ‘net widening’); universal services of welfare, education and health are effective (but punishment becomes ascendant while welfare is in retreat); decarceration is known to be cost-effective (but the use of custody increases).

The publication of the Taylor report provides us an opportunity to reset youth justice and its recommendations seek to repair the “knowledge-practice rupture”. Are we seeing an awakening of criminological reason? I trust we are and look forward to continuing to play my part in providing evidence of what works to policy makers and practitioners.

Driving Improved Outcomes for the Juvenile Justice System

It was a great pleasure to attend the Coalition of Juvenile Justice’s annual conference in Washington D.C. last week. Under the title, “Redefining leadership: engaging youth, communities and policy makers to achieve better juvenile justice outcomes”, the conference convened a broad coalition of policy makers, practitioners, advocates, researchers and, importantly young people themselves.

Improving outcomes for our young people was a good theme for the conference. And it comes at a time when juvenile justice is undergoing substantial reform in states across the U.S. This includes my home state of Georgia which is considered to be in the vanguard of reforming states.

The motivation for reform appears to be driven by a humanitarian desire to end the use of custody for young people and improve conditions in jail.  It is also clear that the reform agenda is driven by fiscal realities and the need to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. The Department of Juvenile Justice in Georgia estimates that it costs upwards of $90,000 a year to house just one juvenile offender in one of its facilities.

Humanitarian and costs concerns are legitimate concerns in public policy, not least how we treat our vulnerable young people. However, we must guard against unfounded good intentions and the danger of delivering cut-price justice. Good juvenile justice outcomes should be about increasing protective factors, ending the “school to prison pipeline”, improving relations with the police and education authorities and – of course – reducing recidivism.  So it was heartening that the conference was committed to improving outcomes for the juvenile offenders, their families and communities as well as the wider juvenile justice system.

The key to achieving good outcomes lies in understanding the data, and I attend several seminars on data-driven decision making, with presenters demonstrating the use of data to model how their juvenile justice system was reformed to achieve improved outcomes. It was also good to learn more about current evidence based interventions that are successful in addressing the underlying factors related to offending behaviour. My own contribution was to present a poster on how evaluation provides empirical evidence of how and why an intervention has achieved its outcomes and what can be done to improve them.

Juvenile justice reform should be led by an empirical analysis of the data: what is effective and cost beneficial. Evaluation has a key role in this and as the current reforms are rolled out they should be evaluated and scrutinized to determine whether they were successful, how they could be improved – or even whether a particular reform should be reversed or altered.

If you would like to learn more about how evaluation can help you with your local reforms, please contact me at alan.mackie@getthedata.co.uk